Our lead negotiator at the P5+1 talks, Wendy Sherman, gave a speech Thursday on the status of the negotiation. If her aim was to say nothing of any import, she almost succeeded.


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry leaves after a news conference in Ankara in September. (REUTERS/Brendan Smialowski/Pool)

There were plenty of meaningless phrases and fluff. “We have made impressive progress on issues that originally seemed intractable. We have cleared up misunderstandings and held exhaustive discussions on every element of a possible text. However, like any complicated and technically complex diplomatic initiative, this is a puzzle with many interlocking pieces.” It is quite an artful way of saying we can’t get Iran to agree to stop its quest for a nuclear weapons capability.

One exasperated former State Department official observed, “Wendy has mastered the art of saying nothing useful while swathing the nothingness in vast amounts of bromides and meaningless crap like ‘We are still working on the Rubik’s cube of this incredibly complicated, intricate negotiation, although we are making some progress by addressing all of the issues but nothing is agreed until everything is agreed and, of course, a bad deal is worse than no deal, but we believe a deal is there to be had . . . ad infinitum, ad nauseum.'” Indeed.

But there were some ominous notes. First, she paints critics of the deal as wanting no deal. “We are aware, of course, that this negotiating process is, shall we say, controversial. Some worry that it will fail. Others seem to fear that it will succeed.” Second, she seems anxiety ridden about not making a deal in contravention of her much-repeated assurance that no deal is better than a bad deal. Instead, she seems to be arguing that if we don’t get what we want in one area, say the number of centrifuges Iran gets, we can make it up elsewhere (a super-duper inspection plan that depends on Iran’s cooperation. (“It would be a mistake to focus inordinate attention on any one issue at the expense of all others”). She also hints that we’ve been throwing out idea after idea (“our group has proposed to Iran a number of ideas that are equitable, enforceable, and consistent with Tehran’s expressed desire for a viable civilian nuclear program and that take into account that country’s scientific knowhow and economic needs”), which from leaks reported in the media seems to be, in fact, concessions. Moreover, Iran must surely see how desperate she is for a deal.

Sanctions expert Mark Dubowitz, who helped design the sanctions regime, counsels that we should be wary of “a cascade of further administration concessions ahead of November 24, which the supreme leader accepts because they give him a relatively easy pathway to a bomb and a sanctions relief program that he can accelerate faster than the administration assumes.” He adds: “The other message: Congress, you will also be to blame if there’s no deal, so get out of the way.” If Obama’s military option were credible or if he was wielding sufficient leverage from sanctions, we would have a deal. That we don’t suggests the Iranians are getting the better of the deal.