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Amateur Hour at the State Department



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There’s something very queer about today’s Wall Street Journal story on the Iran nuclear negotiations. The story doesn’t have any sources more specific than “diplomats involved in the process,” which could just mean a couple of low-level press guys for the International Atomic Energy Agency, watching events at some considerable distance from the principals. It’s not unusual for these stories to be sourced that way, but it would be nice to have a better sense of who the diplomats are, given the somewhat stunning claims they make:

The talks in Geneva stumbled at an ambitious moment because of developments that were unforeseen by top officials from the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Russia, China and Iran, the diplomats said.

One was the intractability of Israel’s opposition. While Washington and other powers were well aware of Israel’s deep antipathy to a deal, they didn’t expect Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to campaign to scuttle it by lobbying leaders around the world as diplomats met in Geneva, diplomats said.

Similarly, despite France’s difficult history with Iran, diplomats said they didn’t expect the French foreign minister to go public with a warning of a “fool’s game” just as negotiations reached a critical point on Saturday. . . .

Among the P5+1 countries, France, along with the U.K. and Germany, has had the most extensive experience negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program. The three countries conducted two years of ultimately unsuccessful talks with Tehran from 2003-2004, leaving many senior French diplomats deeply suspicious about Iran’s sincerity. Tehran blamed the U.S. for scuttling that deal.

Iranian and Western diplomats said they were broadsided when Mr. Fabius broke diplomatic protocol and told French radio Saturday afternoon that Paris wouldn’t accept a deal with inadequate mechanisms for limiting Iran’s ability both to enrich uranium and to bring the Arak facility online.

Diplomats in the P5+1 said Mr. Fabius’s interview broke an agreement among the parties not to publicly discuss the details of the negotiations.

Let’s leave to a side some glaring imprecision in this account (was the French foreign minister’s outburst really “unforeseen by top officials from . . . France”?). This whole version of events is simply amazing. Ask yourself why the French, who have been among the lead negotiators with Iran for the past ten years, would “break an agreement not to publicly discuss the details of the negotiations.” There is only one reason they would do that, which is that their objections were being ignored. The reason negotiating partners agree to maintain silence is so they can maintain a united front; such an agreement serves the same purpose as a joint agreement not to negotiate a separate deal. Now, obviously, if the French objections had been properly incorporated into the joint P5+1 position, there would have been no reason whatever for the French to break ranks. Therefore, we can only conclude that what happened was this: As soon as Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Geneva, the French started getting cut out of the dealmaking as the U.S. tried to sweeten the deal for Iran. The necessary implication of the claims made by these “diplomats involved in the process” is that it was the U.S., not the French, who broke the united front among the P5+1. The report left me wondering if Mr. Kerry isn’t coordinating the U.S. position rather more closely with the Russians than with the French, in keeping with the new U.S. policy of elevating Russian influence in the Middle East. That would have been a nice angle for the WSJ reporters to explore.

Regardless, what we have here is a spectacular failure on the part of the U.S. to coordinate its negotiating position with its allies, which is Diplomacy 101. That failure is particularly glaring in the case of Israel, whose prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, took no time to blast the emerging deal in the press. How is it possible that the U.S. would fail to coordinate with the Israeli government on the details of negotiations that affect Israel’s survival? And how on earth is it possible that diplomats in Geneva could be the least bit surprised (as the WSJ story suggests) by public objections from France and Israel, when U.S. diplomats start making concessions to Iran that they know in advance are unacceptable to France and Israel?

There was once piece of good news: When the negotiations resume next week, the paper says, “they will be conducted by senior officials, not foreign ministers.” So hopefully, this time around, the U.S. delegation won’t be led by rank amateurs, and we can avoid the spectacular incompetence that led to this incredible WSJ story.



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