The failure of the third round of P5+1 talks with Iran has now been finally confirmed, or as Catherine Ashton's official statement said, "it remains clear that there are significant gaps between the substance of the two positions (underlined in the original text)."
So now we are going to have a "technical-level" meeting in Istanbul in two weeks – in other words, nothing achieved in three rounds of talks, and now they go back to where the first round started - only this time, the negotiating teams have been downgraded by two levels.
Poor Ashton and the other diplomats, who missed their flight back home when the talks went into pointless extra-time this evening. They may as well have made their connections.
But the talks in Moscow were doomed already 24 hours before their official end. The death knell was sounded over ten thousand kilometers away in San Jose Del Cabo at the meeting between Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin during the Group of 20 summit in Mexico. While the meeting focused mainly on Syria - more specifically on Russia's opposition to any outside intervention that may be bring about an end to Bashar Assad's bloodbath - the fact that both the U.S. and Russia are ostensibly partners in the international group engaging with Iran, barely warranted a mention in Obama's after-remarks. He just said, according to the New York Times, that he and Putin had "emphasized our shared approach," and that there was still time for diplomacy to work.
If the two most powerful leaders in the really shared an approach regarding Iran, we would have heard a bit more about it. If they shared an approach, they would have done something together to try and get Iran to relinquish its uranium enrichment program. But they don't share very much on this issue. Russia is not in favor of sanctions against Iran, it continues to sell it nuclear knowhow and publicly affirms Iran's sovereign right to enrich uranium. While it regards Syria as an ally and client-state, Russia's attitude towards Iran is more complex. Still, at present, the backing Moscow is giving to the regimes in both Damascus and Tehran has one shared motive - blocking America's influence in the region and bolstering its own. It is no coincidence that the Iranians agreed to hold this round of talks in Moscow.
The Russian administration would have preferred for Iran to be a bit more flexible in this week's talks, since, after all, the failure also taints the hosts. But they weren't willing to join in the American and European effort to force Tehran to make the desired concessions. As I wrote here on Monday, discord between Russia (along with China, which has remained silent) and the Western P5+1 partners, and with a lack of a clear statement from the Obama administration, would be a signal of the talks' failure.
It is unclear whether heavier Russian pressure could have changed the outcome of the talks, but it is now certain that Russia's ongoing support is a major boost to their intransigent position. Just as it is one of the most significant factors still keeping Assad in power.
Four and a half months before the presidential elections, Obama now faces a double foreign policy crisis that is all but promising to blow up before the American people go to the polls. I would say it is the worst foreign crisis his administration has faced, but a Eurozone meltdown could still occur and rival the Syrian-Iranian explosion. And to make things worse, the one leader who could help him pull the hand-grenades out of the fire seems content to let them detonate in his face.