What a Difference a Day (of Iran Talks) Makes

After ten hours of talks with Iran, opportunities for a diplomatic resolution of the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program have dramatically improved, and Congress gears up to vote on yet another attempt to kill diplomacy before the next round of talks.

After the first talks in more than a year, the parties have agreed to meet again on May 23 for an additional round of talks. Considering the high stakes involved, hitting the ‘snooze’ button on the proverbial ‘alarm clock of confrontation’, as journalist Tony Karon put it, is a real achievement. Agreeing to more talks signals a commitment from all parties at the table to hold off on war—at least for now.

10 Hours of Talks: the Highlights

The most notable accomplishment of the talks were that negotiators agreed to adopt a framework for ensuring Iran’s nuclear program is solely used for peaceful purposes which is endorsed by virtually every diplomat, arms control expert, government official, citizen activist, or anyone else who is serious in preventing a nuclear-armed Iran and a catastrophic war: the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Agreeing to the NPT framework is a win-win-win-win-win-win-win decision for all seven parties involved. Iran ‘wins’ because under the NPT, Iran, as a signatory, has the right to a civilian nuclear program under strict international safeguards. This agreement demonstrates that the P5+1 (The U.S., U.K., France, China, Russia, and Germany) acknowledges that Iran will continue to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. This decision is a flat out rejection of the demand, that many in Congress have made, for Iran to surrender its entire nuclear program.

The P5+1 parties ‘wins’ because the NPT also requires that Iran fully cooperates with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog. The NPT also provides a more detailed framework called the “Additional Protocols”, which would ensure even more intrusive inspections and other guarantees against any attempt by Iran to weaponize nuclear material.

Unfortunately, the talks were immediately denounced by Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, who has pushed for a more aggressive policy toward Iran, which directly contradicts a wide swath of the Israeli military and intelligence establishment, and the Israeli population at large. In a clearly symbolic move, Senator Joe Lieberman (CT), the principal architect of legislation pressing the administration to abandon diplomacy and push toward war, stood next to Netanyahu while he blasted the talks.

While critics argue that the talks haven’t produced an instantaneous solution, it’s rather astonishing to see how ten hours of talks dramatically diminished the drumbeat for war. It’s all the more impressive when considering that in real terms, as the Guardian reported, the ten hours of Saturday’s talks boiled down to a lot less than five hours, because the negotiations were conducted in English, requiring Farsi translation for the Iranian negotiator.

Those ten hours also included an awkward lunch break, that illustrated just how much work ahead there is to build trust between the parties. According to one diplomat’s account of the buffet lunch at Istanbul’s conference center, the P5+1 team sat on one end of the room, and Iran’s negotiating team sat at another. As if the two teams represented opposite genders at a middle school dance, there was reportedly, “no contact at all”.

Yet, with all these complications, progress the parties were still able to agree on a common framework for the talks, and to commit to further negotiations. While hawks have long insisted that anything less than an immediate solution spells failure, U.S. national security experts agree that for diplomacy to be effective, it must be sustained.

In fact, the very reason why diplomacy hasn’t yielded more results is because there has never been sustained U.S.-Iran diplomacy since the countries severed diplomatic relations in 1980. Ambassador Thomas Pickering, the former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Israel, and a host of other countries recently pointed out to Congress that U.S.-Iran diplomacy has been merely a series of ‘one-night stands’:

“Past talks have suffered….because they have been a series of one-night stands, meetings that took place over one day, where one side or the other, either Iran or the United States, had a proposal, and the other side rejected it. They went away and then spent another six to eight months negotiating a resumption.”

Will Congress Kill Talks?

Hardliners on all sides—in Iran, the United States, and in other countries—have sabotaged promising opportunities for diplomacy before. This time, the Senate was on the verge of passing a far-reaching Iran sanctions package that could well have undermined the talks last weekend—if it wasn’t blocked by Senator Rand Paul (KY).

As early as this week, Congress is expected to vote on this sanctions bill, along with dangerous resolutions that would lower the threshold for war with Iran, and endorse ultimatums that would make diplomacy all but impossible.

With another round of talks scheduled in a month, there is great potential, but also great risk of Congress sabotaging the talks. It’s a crucial time for advocates of a diplomatic resolution to the U.S.-Iran crisis mobilize, and build the political space necessary for the United States and Iran to reject impossible demands that would kill the talks, and to keep talking.