Every year around this time, the European Union stages a session of talks with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Will the exercise now suddenly produce results?
The ritual started in 1982, when then-Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher of West Germany coined the phrase “critical dialogue.” Initially, the talks aimed at changing Iran’s behavior on human rights and exporting terror.
Genscher achieved nothing, but his “critical dialogue” found other champions in France and Britain. In 2006, the exercise grew to include the United States, Russia and China.
Under President Obama, a sucker for multilateralism, the agenda was compressed into a single issue: persuading Iran to accept a temporary freeze of uranium enrichment. The exercise was subcontracted to the European Union, with Catherine Ashton — who is referred to as the EU’s foreign-policy representative, without having any powers corresponding to the title — in charge. Last week, she announced she’d received a letter from Tehran accepting another round of talks.
The process suits Iran fine. It gives “hostile powers” something to chew on while Iran does what it wants. It also enables US and European leaders to tell their respective publics that they are “doing something” about the threat that Iran poses. And it helps Russia and China to claim that, because diplomacy is working, there is no need for tougher action. The blame-America-first chorus also uses the process to bash “neocons” who argue that the mullahs won’t stop unless someone else stops them.
But this year things are different. Tehran has declared at the outset that the nuclear issue — the only one that interests the 5+1 group (America, France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China) — shouldn’t even be on the agenda.
“The Islamic Republic has already become a member of the nuclear club,” President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared last week, as he unveiled the first nuclear-fuel rod manufactured in Iran. “Our nuclear program is not a subject for negotiations.”