Leslie H. Gelb: The Iran-Washington Conspiracy?

Both Washington and Tehran are maneuvering to head off an Israeli attack against Iran, a process of intriguing diplomatic gamesmanship. By Leslie H. Gelb

Spencer Platt / Getty Images (left); C. Flanigan, FilmMagic / Getty Images

Tehran and Washington have discovered a surprising common bond: to pretend that they might be heading toward serious negotiations to curb Iran’s nuclear capacity. What’s more, they are pretending for the same reason: to ward off an Israeli attack on Iran.

Their moves are barely noticeable—vague diplomatic pronouncements, op-eds, lots of behind-the-scenes orchestration by Russia. They don’t want much attention—just enough to persuade Israel to wait on military action, to buy time. The American line is that the economic sanctions are working and weakening Tehran’s will. Iran’s line is we’re willing to compromise, but we’re not going to be pushovers.

Of course, there is no actual collusion between Iran and the United States; they don’t trust each other. But both have reached the conclusion that war is worse than continued uncertainty—at least for the time being, as far as the United States is concerned.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has been driving the process. Moscow is one of Tehran’s last reliable friends, which makes Russia agreeable to Iran, but suspect in the West. Nonetheless, Lavrov has presented Iran with an unpublished, and perhaps vague, step-by-step proposal with reciprocity at each step. The idea is for both sides to move gradually toward Iran’s limiting (not eliminating) its nuclear capacity, plus extensive inspections and the West’s lifting economic sanctions against Iran plus giving security guarantees.

U.S. officials and other sources claim a breakthrough occurred in the Russian-Iranian talks last month. The big concessions, they said, were made by Tehran. Iran would hold its uranium enrichment to 5 percent, well below the threshold needed to make nuclear weapons, maintain only one uranium facility, and allow extensive inspections. These diplomatic mumblings were never spelled out in an official document. Instead, they were followed by a general and short letter sent from Saeed Jalili, head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council. The addressee was EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, posting officer for the P-5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany).

Next comes a small, but consequential buy-in to this process by the United States. At a press conference last week with Ashton, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the letter “an important step.” Ashton pronounced herself “cautious and optimistic.” In diplomatic parlance, that’s not chicken feed. And remember, they were making nice to a mere 200 word letter that said practically nothing, suggesting they were really giving a nod to something else going on.

A variety of diplomats said that the hidden information was spelled out in a recent op-ed by Hossein Mousavian, a key figure on Iranian nuclear matters. In it, he urged each side to meet the other’s bottom line. The West would allow Iran to produce reliable civilian nuclear energy (in other words, continue uranium enrichment at low levels), and Iran would commit to intrusive inspections. Also, Iran would agree to provisions that would prevent its development of nuclear weapons or a short-notice breakout capability. In return, the West would remove sanctions, and normalize Iran’s nuclear standing at the U.N. Security Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency. Mousavian added that he regarded the Lavrov plan as well as statements by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (proposing to limit uranium enrichment to 20% in return for the West supplying fuel rods for Iran’s research reactor) to be “the most conducive path to reaching such a deal.” This, again, was a nice little link to the authenticity of the Russian plan, but still nothing official.

The players in this game awaited another positive signal earlier this week, when international inspectors arrived back in Iran. But they were denied access to a key military facility and publicly announced their disappointment and departure Wednesday. Those who say the game goes on insist this is just a temporary setback, part of an Iranian strategy to look tough at home even as they maneuver abroad. The chest-thumping for home consumption was further punctuated this week by a senior Iranian general threatening a preemptive military strike against any “enemy” who threatened Iran.

To look on the bright side of things, all the tough moves and talk could be aimed at Iran’s parliamentary elections set for next week. This will pit President Ahmadinejad’s “moderate” governmental party against even more conservative groups. (The reformers just don’t count this time.) It is said that Ahmadinejad doesn’t want to be outflanked on the right by the conservatives; thus the tough talk. Afterwards, he would resume positive negotiating steps toward the West. Or maybe Iran is just a political mess with no one really in control.

So, to see what Iran might be up to, the West will have to wait until April, at the earliest. However, this could have a devastating effect on the Iranian-American maneuvers to hold off an Israeli attack. It’s hard to convince Israel that the sanctions are working and that Iran is bending in the face of Tehran’s stone-walling the international inspectors and threatening pre-emptive assault. But that still appears to be the main play of the Obama administration. General Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told CNN on Sunday that an Israeli attack would be “premature” and “destabilizing.” Those are fighting diplomatic words against fighting. But they come from America’s top general, and they undoubtedly reinforce National Security Adviser Tom Donilon’s private messages to Israeli leaders in Jerusalem last week.

The mutual moves Tehran and Washington are making to convince Israel that serious negotiations are on the horizon are wearing thin. There isn’t enough happening in the diplomatic back channels. Thus, two choices remain: Ahmadinejad has to defy the conservatives and be more forthcoming publicly. Not likely. Alternatively, President Obama will have to suck it up in an election year and offer a comprehensive proposal of its own. Also unlikely. At this point, then, Tehran’s and Washington’s subtle maneuvering to buy time is less a strategy than a prayer.