Was there any doubt that the first talks with Iran would be deemed “constructive”? That’s naturally what President Obama called them in his statement yesterday. And inevitably Iran agreed to talk even more, perhaps — Iran’s foreign minister suggested — eventually in a “summit level” meeting between Obama and Iranian president Mahmound Ahmadinejad.
The big news out of the talks is that Iran agreed to rapid International Atomic Energy Agency inspections of its just-revealed enrichment facility at Qom and, in principle, to ship some of its existing low-enriched uranium to Russia. Although these items will be enough for the press — and for Iran’s international enablers — to play up the positive results of the talks, neither of these moves is earth-shattering.
The Iranians are masters of making concessions that they take back or water down, so we’ll have to see how quickly and forthrightly they really accede to inspections at Qom. In any case, the facility reportedly isn’t yet operational, so its importance in itself should not be exaggerated. The exposure of the facility was noteworthy because it was a stark piece of evidence confirming what everyone had suspected all along: Iran has a series of secret facilities running parallel to its known activities. Unless Iran becomes completely transparent about all its nuclear-related work and welcomes thoroughgoing, spontaneous inspections, Qom is beside the point.
As for agreeing to send low-enriched uranium to Russia and France, where it will be further enriched to a level sufficient for medical research and returned to Iran, this is “confidence-building step,” in Obama’s words, to nowhere. The Iranians get the uranium back, and it’s impossible to know how much of Iran’s total uranium stock the portion slated for export represents. As we speak, the Iranians are still enriching at Natanz. Yesterday, Obama appeared to soft-pedal the demand — backed up by three U.N. resolutions — that the Iranians suspend enrichment, mentioning it in his remarks only obliquely. He did not utter the word “sanctions.”
The game for Iran here is a relatively easy one — string things along so talks continue and stiffer sanctions are forestalled. For Tehran, any meeting that leads to other meetings without its being forced to decide between its nuclear program and crippling sanctions or other coercive measures is a victory. Obama said yesterday that “our patience is not unlimited.” He’ll have to prove it.