Is Iran More Constructive Than the Tea Party?

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times and a correspondent for the Independent in Washington, the Balkans and Moscow. He is based in London.
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Right now, Iran is looking like a more constructive negotiating partner than certain U.S. House Republicans.

Before throwing any crockery at that proposition, consider that the price of oil fellto a three-month low Tuesday, in part on the impression from day one of Iranian nuclear talks in Geneva that the Iranians may actually want a deal. Meanwhile, Fitch Ratings put the U.S.'s triple-A credit rating on a negative watch, based on the decision by House Republicans to reject the latest Senate bill, because some of them don't want a deal.

Of course, the latest Iran talks have barely started. The hard part -- detailing Iranian concessions and commensurate sanctions relief -- is all to come. Most people assume the U.S. will somehow avoid a default, despite the best efforts of Senator Ted Cruz. Not so many are confident that a comprehensive deal will be reached with Iran. Still, the approach the Iranians are taking in Geneva is new and refreshing.

To start with, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and his lead negotiator, Abbas Araghchi, are speakingin English. That might not sound like much, but using the language of the Great Satan for such sensitive business is a departure that suggests these particular Iranians want to get something done. What it is they want to achieve is a different matter.

Zarif showed up in Geneva with a plan and a PowerPoint presentation to explain it. This wasn't one of the usual Iranian offerings of recent years, which had little direct relation to the business at hand (not unlike raising an unrelated health-care law as a condition for budget talks, for example). Instead, Zarif proposed a framework for the nuclear negotiations to proceed: Agree to the end goal the two sides want to reach, figure out the detailed steps to get there and set a timeframe to complete the process so that neither side suspects it is being strung along.

Then the Iranian delegation went to talk to the enemy: U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman.

This kind of directness hasn't been seen since Zarif last was on the Iranian negotiating team, in 2005, when he surprised his European counterparts with a proposal (and again the PowerPoint show) offering a way out -- the opening shot in a deal similar to what might be reached today. You can see that Iranian proposal here.

The Europeans ignored Zarif's proposal, made on behalf of then chief negotiator (and now Iran's president) Hassan Rouhani, because it involved allowing Iran to continue uranium enrichment. That was a U.S. red line at the time. "We're returning to something here," veteran diplomat Sir Jeremy Greenstock, who now chairs the United Nations Association of the U.K., told me. "The West needs to decide how to respond."

Greenstock, who was U.K. ambassador to the UN in the lead-up to the Iraq war, believes that the regime in Tehran feels under pressure for the first time in years. Economic sanctions are weakening a hand that had been strengthening ever since the U.S. toppled Iran's deadliest enemy, Saddam Hussein, in 2003. "There has been a rethinking in the regime as a whole as to where Iran's national interests lie," he said.

After 2005, with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the Iranian presidency, Western diplomats spoke only of frustration in their dealings with Zarif and Rouhani's successors. The Western side would propose some carefully crafted step for the Iranians to take in order to "build confidence" that they weren't hiding a nuclear-weapons program. The Iranians would respond with a proposal on how to change the global order or talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Which sounds a little like the kind of frustrating discussion that might have been heard on Capitol Hill in recent days.

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