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The Indirect Repercussion of Direct U.S.-Iran Talks

The important question is not whether there will be a publicly acknowledged dialogue between the U.S. and Iran, but what concessions Washington will offer or may have offered Iran to consent to a dialogue.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The lead headlines in Israel about a breakthrough in talks with Iran didn't seem to impress the Iranian media very much. Websites and newspapers affiliated with the regime and the Revolutionary Guards contained no references to Iran planning to or agreeing to launch direct talks with the United States, nor were there any hints of some back channel opening between the two countries.

On the contrary, the Iranian media on Sunday were full of anti-American and anti-Israel diatribes; with threats to respond to any attack by using sophisticated UAVs and allegations that Israel and the U.S. were responsible for "the terror attacks in Iran and Lebanon." But one wouldn't expect that a confirmation or denial of contacts with the United States would come through the Iranian media, at least not at this stage.

In any event, the assumption that an American-Iranian channel of communication exists needs no further confirmation. From the beginning of his tenure, U.S. President Barack Obama made clear that he intended to pursue a dialogue with Tehran. The naming of Dennis Ross as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's special adviser on the Persian Gulf - including Iran - was aimed at determining whether a direct dialogue could be established, but apparently Ross didn't believe it could be, so he quit. It seems, however, that efforts to forge a dialogue have not ended, Ross or no Ross.

The important question is not whether there will be a publicly acknowledged dialogue between the U.S. and Iran, but what concessions Washington will offer or may have offered Iran to consent to a dialogue. During George Bush's presidency, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad was the one who expressed a desire for direct talks. But he demanded an American commitment not to attack so long as the negotiations were going on. Bush refused to make such a commitment, instead demanding that Iran stop enriching uranium as a condition for talks. That led nowhere.

Obama has embraced a new approach, under which there are no preconditions for negotiations with Iran, and the only relevant red line is the actual manufacture of nuclear weapons and not uranium enrichment. This contrasts sharply with Bush's and Israel's approach and has made Israel particularly angry. The question of whether Obama has acquiesced to the Iranian demand to commit to not attacking during talks has yet to be answered, at least not publicly.

Did Iran's agreeing to talks contribute to the wording of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's UN speech, in which he "granted" the U.S. administration more time, until next spring or summer, for diplomatic efforts? The lukewarm and indecisive responses Sunday from Netanyahu's associates could indicate that the prime minister was not surprised by the weekend's headlines, even if he doesn't approve of the move.

Another question relates to the degree to which economic sanctions might have influenced Iran to pursue direct talks with the U.S. In theory, Iran doesn't need a dialogue to remove the burden of sanctions. It would be enough for Tehran to inform the P5 +1 countries that it is stopping the enrichment of uranium, or come to an agreement on reducing its enrichment and removing the enriched material from Iranian soil.

But a readiness to talk publicly with the United States could have more far-reaching implications than removing the sanctions and reducing enrichment. It would constitute a general green light for conversing with the "Great Satan," and a significant turnabout in the perception of the U.S. as an enemy.

It could be that the delay in announcing the opening of a dialogue until the result of the U.S. presidential election is known points to Iran's desire not necessarily to buy time, but to make sure that such a historic gesture doesn't fall into the hands of a president who won't know what to make of it or won't want to take advantage of it.

A mural on a wall of the former U.S. embassy in Tehran.Credit: Reuters
Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks at a public gathering on his tour to the northeastern city of Bojnourd, Iran, October 10, 2012.Credit: AP

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