Below is the text of a media summary compiled by Tehran Bureau, which is affiliated with PBS Frontline. They quote extensively from a comment I wrote over the weekend.
Iranian media said on Sunday that talks aimed at resolving a nuclear standoff with the West would go ahead as planned in Istanbul on Friday, but there was no official confirmation from Tehran or the other capitals involved.
Iran initially agreed to, then appeared to reject Istanbul as the venue for the talks, ostensibly because Turkey recently hosted the Syrian opposition there. Iran views Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a major strategic ally. The turnaround prompted Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to accuse Iran of being a “dishonest foot-dragger.”
“It is necessary to act honestly,” Erdogan said at a news conference in Ankara. The Iranians “continue to lose prestige in the world because of a lack of honesty.”
A White House spokesman later said the Obama administration viewed the jockeying over the site as a “sideshow.” It has since launched its own sideshow of sorts in the media.
“If it’s Sunday,” Columbia University scholar Gary Sick wrote in an email to Gulf 2000, a listserv he moderates, “it must be time for major U.S. government ‘leaks’ (really planted stories) about Iran. Positioning and spinning is particularly important with negotiations possibly ready to start.”
He continued,The official feed to The New York Times is in the article by David E. Sanger and Steven Erlanger outlining U.S. demands in the opening round. They look very much like the proposed demands outlined by Israeli officials and Dennis Ross last week, viz. closing (and eventually dismantling) Fordow, and halting all production of and removing all 20 percent enriched uranium. The official going-in position seems to be a halt to all enrichment, but there is an ambiguous suggestion that a compromise outcome would be some level of enrichment with stringent monitoring and inspections.
The leak to the Washington Post had a different theme. It suggests that U.S. intelligence — primarily drones and intercepts — is now so good that we can have considerable confidence that Iran is not now building a nuclear weapon and that we would know if and when Iran changed course and decided to race for a bomb. This complements the Times article by indicating that the United States is going into negotiations with a much better understanding of internal Iranian policy than we ever had on Iraq. “Trust us,” seems to to be the underlying message.
What is missing from both stories is any indication of what Iran might expect to receive for its cooperation. The threat of crippling sanctions is mentioned in the event that Iran fails to toe the line, but there is no consideration of how sanctions might change if there was actual movement toward an agreement. The strategy is all threat and no concession. That is entirely consistent with U.S. strategy since at least the days of Bill Clinton.
Part of the negative tone in The New York Times may be the result of its good-cop-bad-cop approach to Iran reporting. Will we have a report from the alternative team on Monday giving a more nuanced and balanced interpretation of the same evidence? We’ll just have to wait and see.
Incidentally, neither The Times nor The Post, despite their varying degrees of focus on the intelligence picture, even hinted at assassinations or cyber warfare in Iran, let alone the Sy Hersh report about secret U.S. training of Iranian Mojahedin Khalgh operatives for operations inside Iran. Some things, it seems, are better off not said.
Muhammad Sahimi notes that the hot topic in the Iranian press and blogosphere is a report by Debka, a website believed to be close to Israel’s intelligence agencies. Read and cited more often for gossip than news, it is however the centerpiece of a recent article by Tabnak, a website close to Mohsen Rezaei, former chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The story originates from a March 25-26 conference in South Korea on nuclear proliferation and terrorism. About 60 countries were represented. U.S. President Barack Obama attended, as did the presidents of Russia and China. Erdogan was also there and met with Obama on the second day. Notable absentees were Iran and North Korea, reportedly because the organizers did not want them to use the occasion for propaganda.
Immediately after the conference, Erdogan flew to Tehran. From there, he went to Mashhad to meet with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on March 29. It was widely speculated that Erdogan delivered a message from Obama to Khamenei about Iran’s nuclear program. A report in Israel’s liberal Haaretz newspaper and a column by the Washington Post’s David Ignatius lent some credence to the speculation.
While neither the Washington Post nor Haaretz provided much detail about Obama’s message, according to Tabnak — relying on Debka — it contained six main points. Whether true or not, this is the report Iranians are debating:1. The Islamic Republic must attend the upcoming talks with the P5+1 group, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany, scheduled for Friday, April 13. Iran must be prepared to demonstrate that it is genuinely and seriously open to a compromise on its nuclear program.
2. If Iran’s delegation attends the talks with a negative attitude, President Obama will merge the back-channel U.S.-Iran dialogue [believed to have been taking place for some time] with the formal diplomatic negotiating track.
3. Any agreement with Tehran would require a commitment from the Islamic Republic to freeze (though not dismantle) all aspects of its nuclear program. It would do so the moment the accord was reached. No new projects may be initiated, and all projects in progress must stop. The number of centrifuges at the Fordow enrichment facility must not be expanded; research on nuclear weapons and the construction of models [as alleged] must be discontinued, and the transition of uranium enrichment from 3.5 percent to 20 percent must be halted.
4. Obama allegedly asked Erdogan to tell Khamenei that he was impressed by the Supreme Leader’s comments in his annual speech to the nation on the occasion of the new Iranian year [that began March 20] in which he declared, “The Iranian nation has never pursued and will never pursue nuclear weapons…. Iran is not after nuclear weapons because the Islamic Republic, logically, religiously and theoretically, considers the possession of nuclear weapons a grave sin and believes the proliferation of such weapons is senseless, destructive and dangerous.” [Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton also said that Khamenei’s “abstract” statement must be put into practice as the government’s policy.] In his message, Obama supposedly responded to another of Khamenei’s remarks, made to pilgrims gathered at the Imam Reza Shrine in Mashhad: “The Americans are making a grave mistake if they think that by making threats they will destroy the Iranian nation.” Obama allegedly asked Erdogan to tell Khamenei that neither he nor the United States have entertained such ideas.
5. The Islamic Republic must change its hostile anti-U.S. tone in speeches and publications. It must stop calling America an enemy and the Great Satan. In place of such statements, Obama would deeply appreciate helpful comments by the Iranian leaders, as well as news reports from Tehran reflecting an improved attitude by the Islamic Republic toward the United States, as a result of his administration’s polices. As an example of what Obama would like to see, Erdogan supposedly cited Khamenei’s words of praise to the American president “promoting diplomacy rather than war” as a solution to Tehran’s nuclear program.
A positive overture by the Islamic Republic toward the United States, he said, will help Obama counter his critics who have charged him with being “soft” on Iran. This would help him get reelected. If he does, he could pursue diplomacy with Tehran and avert the war that the right has been pushing.
6. On Obama’s behalf, Erdogan explained to Khamenei that there is a close link between shifts in U.S. policy on Iran and its nuclear program, on the one hand, and the crisis in Syria on the other. The message was that Obama has apparently so far succeeded in blocking moves by Saudi Arabia and its allies around the Persian Gulf to push for Western military intervention in Syria. Obama believes that a coalition that includes Washington, Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, and the United Nations can be successful in resolving the Iranian nuclear issue.
If this report is true, Khamenei has so far remained publicly silent about the message. Fars, the news agency controlled by the Revolutionary Guards, reported that Umit Yadim, Turkey’s ambassador to Tehran, has denied the report. On the other hand, Mehr News Agency, which is owned by the Organization of Islamic Propaganda, claimed that in his message, Obama said that “he has no opposition to a civilian nuclear program” in Iran. The Washington Post reports that the U.S. president has left the issue of Iran’s uranium enrichment for the upcoming negotiations.
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