The False Equivalence in The New York Times Coverage of P5+1 Nuclear Talks with Iran
A post-mortem about the recently concluded P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran in The New York Times made a false equivalence between the two sides.
In the end, both were constrained by hard-line politics at home. Mr. Zarif, while friendly, outgoing and Westernized, had pushed to the very limits of his brief; he often warned that the final decision would be in the hands of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And Ayatollah Khamenei, American intelligence officials had told President Obama and Mr. Kerry, was heavily influenced by the Revolutionary Guard Corps and his own distrust of the Americans.
For his part, Mr. Kerry’s position was complicated by the Republican midterm election victory and the fear of feeding the narrative that Mr. Obama was a weakened president. The bipartisan talk in Congress about new sanctions hung over the American negotiating team. And so did Israel’s constant warnings that Mr. Obama was at risk of being duped. If Israel condemned any outcome as a bad deal, the label could stick in Congress.
This equivalence is outrageous. Is Congressional opposition to the deal really the parallel the intransigence of Khamenei and the IRGC? Consider the following report from the Wall Street Journal last week (Google link):
U.S. diplomats began negotiations last year by proposing the dismantlement of most of Iran’s infrastructure used to produce nuclear fuel through the enrichment of uranium, including at an underground facility called Fordow.
They also said they intended to shut Iran’s heavy-water reactor in the city of Arak, which can be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium, and limit Tehran’s ballistic-missile program.
A year later, U.S. officials have acknowledged that Iran will be allowed to maintain a uranium-enrichment capability as part of any deal, and that demands to close Arak and scale back Iran’s missile program have been taken off the table.
These concessions are significant. A heavy water reactor that produces plutonium has no purpose in a non-military nuclear program. The isotopes Iran claims to want for research would also be created by a light water reactor, which does not produce plutonium, an ingredient for a nuclear bomb. A peaceful nuclear program also has no need for ballistic missiles, which are the means to deliver a nuclear warhead. In other words, on two elements that show that Iran’s claims of a peaceful nuclear program are false, the United States has given in.
Several points emerge from this.
1) The United States (leading the P5+1) has conceded several major points to Iran. Iran has conceded nothing.This has been the dynamic of the nuclear negotiations. The United States conceded and Iran says not enough. Even The Washington Post, which supported President Obama twice as well as the current negotiations with Iran, noted in an editorial that concessions have only gone one way.
2) Iran insists that it has rights to an enrichment program. As I wrote earlier this week, according to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), it has rights to nuclear power for peaceful purposes. But the elements of Iran’s program that it has refused concede are precisely those (as well as its fictitious right to enrich uranium with no limits) elements that suggest that its program is military, not peaceful.
3) Though much of the media spin is that the negotiations were a failure, that’s not how they’re viewed in Tehran. Iran’s leadership considers the extension a victory, because it, so far, preserves all the building blocks of its military nuclear program. That is Iran’s goal. Michael Ledeen wrote, “Khamenei does not want a deal with the United States.” And America keeps paying him with sanctions relief – at least another $700 million a month over the next seven months – for not making a deal.
The West, led by the United States has, in fact, compromised. So to charge that Kerry couldn’t make a deal because of hardliners in Congress is misleading, if not absolutely false. Maybe Congress will limit how much Kerry will concede in the future, but Iran never compromised on anything substantive. The failure to achieve a deal is solely the result of hardliners in Tehran, who have not compromised and seek victory not accommodation. To write that both Kerry and Zarif are constrained by hardliners may sound good and may provide some useful political cover for the administration that’s been fleeced by a dangerous adversary, but it’s simply not correct.
The perversity of this equivalence is aggravated by the missing context. Iran has been able to keep its nuclear program mostly intact, in violation of six UN Security Council resolutions and refuses to concede on any of these. Somehow, to The New York Times, that’s comparable to Congress wanting to enforce international law by imposing sanctions on a rogue regime.
It’s also interesting to recall what President Obama said in his State of the Union address in January.
If Iran’s leaders do not seize this opportunity, then I will be the first to call for more sanctions, and stand ready to exercise all options to make sure Iran does not build a nuclear weapon. But if Iran’s leaders do seize the chance, then Iran could take an important step to rejoin the community of nations, and we will have resolved one of the leading security challenges of our time without the risks of war.
Well Iran’s leaders have not seized the opportunity and Secretary of State John Kerry is saying (pathetically) that “the United States and our partners have earned the benefit of the doubt at this point.” No, Mr. Secretary, you have earned nothing, Iran has rebuffed the United States and the international community, and been rewarded for it. Show that you’re serious about negotiating and hold President Obama to his word to call for more sanctions.
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