Behind the Scenes at Geneva Iran Talks

Call it coincidence, but on the very day that the two-week ultimatum for Iran to respond to the P5+1’s “freeze for freeze” offer runs out, Le Monde got its hands on detailed minutes of the Geneva meeting between Javier Solana and Saeed Jalili, attended by William Burns, two weeks ago in Geneva. And not surprisingly, the account isn’t very flattering for Jalili. Apparently he managed to completely ignore Burns, seated only two chairs away from Solana, who spoke only to say the following:

I’m happy to be here to transmit a simple message: the United States are serious in their support of the offer [of cooperation] and of the Way Forward [freeze for freeze]. We are serious in the search for a diplomatic solution. Relations between our two countries have been based on a profound mistrust for thirty years. I hope my presence today is a step in the right direction, and that you will seize this opportunity. (Translated from the French translation of the original English.)

An opportunity described as “precious” by the Chinese, British and German envoys.

Jalili for his part spoke about a “strategic” cooperation to address the questions of “security, terrorism and energy security,” and asked:

In what quality are we approaching these negotiations: as partners, friends, rivals, or hostile parties? (Translated from the French translation of the original Farsi.)

Jalili refused to address the P5+1’s two pointed offers, namely the freeze for freeze and a six week period of prenegotiations, during the meeting itself. But Solana, after a private lunch with Jalili, reported that the Iranian negotiator had refused both. According to Le Monde:

. . .Jalili’s presentation shows that Iran feels it is in a position of strength in the Middle East, with its diverse leverage points in the region’s crises (Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian dossier), as well as on energy issues, and that it doesn’t feel any urgent need to cede anything to facilitate a negotiated settlement of the nuclear standoff. (Translated from the French.)

When offered with the two week “ultimatum” along with the threat of additional sanctions in the event of a negative response, Jalili replied that Iran’s position is “strong” and that, citing the Ayatollah Khamenei, “We won’t talk in an environment of threats.”

The article notes that diplomats involved in the dossier believe a diplomatic breakthrough is unlikely before the American presidential election, but also because of Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s weakened domestic political position. Unlike President Bush, Ahmadinejad isn’t a lame duck, and will have to face his electorate in the event of what might be seen by others as courageous concessions, but would be protrayed by the John Boltons of Iran as capitulation.

Again, I don’t think there’s any coincidence that this got leaked on the very day that the news cycle will be dominated by Iran’s likely refusal to accept the two-week ultimatum, and the West’s likely pursuit of renewed sanctions. I also think the latest P5+1 offer, when combined with the presence of William Burns, is compelling and indeed a “precious” opportunity.

But as I pointed out here, it’s important to listen to what the Iranians are saying, and as Flynt and Sarah Mann Leverett point out here, we should at least consider whether what they’re offering isn’t also a “precious opportunity.” As for the obvious questions about whether or not the Iranians can be trusted, from what Jalili is saying, the Iranians are asking themselves the same questions about us.

What’s needed is a real game-changing action (not signal, but action), to prove good faith. The Iranians could provide one by allowing unfettered IAEA access to their nuclear program. The U.S. could offer more than just William Burns’ attendance at a meeting. But neither side is likely to do that so long as they both feel like it would be a sign of weakness, rather than strength.

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