On the eve of the presidential foreign policy debate, the New York Times today dropped a blockbuster front page story that may or may not be true: according to some U.S. officials, the Americans and Iranians have agreed, in some sort of principle, to have one-on-one chats after the election. The odd timing of the leak aside (momentarily), what's most striking is that both the U.S. and the Iranians are denying the report. That of course doesn't bode well for what otherwise would be a hopeful sign that the standoff with Iran over its nuclear program can be undone without war. As for the denials, though, remember both countries have elections upcoming, Iran next year and the U.S. in just a couple weeks.
Speaking of which, why put the story out there now? The two most credible theories, as far as I can tell, are that either the administration leaked it to draw Mitt Romney out on Iran issues or it's a "hostile leak" to put the kibosh on some nascent talks. As for the latter, whoever gave the scoop to the Times might be looking to kill any secret talks: a lot of people, including some more hawkish elements of the Democratic Party, wouldn't mind seeing both sides disavow even minor progress on diplomacy. I suspect that's the most likely explanation, though I wouldn't bet on it. The theory also rests on the story being right, which it may well be. The Times has not withdrawn the piece and one of its authors stood by the reporting this morning on Meet the Press.
However, if the administration, with the election in mind, is looking a couple steps ahead, it could force Romney to expose himself as just not that into resolving the Iran crisis peacefully. If President Obama presses, he could make Romney flesh out his campaign's position that the Iranians can't, in a diplomatic deal, continue enriching uranium at all—echoing the Israeli government, AIPAC and, accordingly, much of both sides of the aisle on the Hill. The stance, insofar as its proponents favor talks at all, is a non-starter for Iran, whose government needs to save face by preserving what it dubiously contends are peaceful nuclear ambitions, and whose people roundly support Iran's right to such a program.
Whether the Times story is right or not, if a nuanced debate about this issue could show so-called "zero enrichment" for what it is—a path to war—it could be a win-win in terms of the President laying down a marker both in the political discussion and the public discourse on the policy issue. It would also, however, require the administration to come out and say it could maybe, should negotiations get serious, endorse continued Iranian low-level enrichment under strict safeguards. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hinted at this sort of American flexibility in 2010, but I highly doubt Obama wants to restate it at just this moment during a nationally-televised debate.
So was this a political move aimed at introducing such nuance, at the risk of great political peril? Would such a move even be possible in the hottest days of the silly season? I doubt it. But by watching Obama on Monday night, we might find out.