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Who’s whispering in David Ignatius’s ear?

Who’s whispering in David Ignatius’s ear?

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius has been on a tear lately: breaking news on the files found in Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad safe house, revealing details of the backchannel negotiations between Erdogan and Ayatollah Khamenei, and now, channeling the Obama administration’s negotiating strategy toward Iran.

At a time when Thomas Friedman is writing his 35th column complaining about the state of America’s train system and urging New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to launch a third-party bid for the presidency, Ignatius is far and away America’s must-read columnist right now. Iggy has always been known for his top-notch sources, especially in the intelligence community, but his columns seem especially well-sourced of late — it’s almost as if he has a weekly lunch with Tom Donilon or something.

Let’s take a look at his latest. Ignatius says that "the smart money in Tehran is betting on a deal" — picking up on a rise in the Iranian stock market to argue that a nuclear agreement is in the offing. "So far," he writes, "Iran is following the script for a gradual, face-saving exit from a nuclear program that even Russia and China have signaled is too dangerous. The Iranians will bargain up to the edge of the cliff, but they don’t seem eager to jump." According to Ignatius, under this deal, "Iran would agree to stop enriching uranium to the 20 percent level and to halt work at an underground facility near Qom built for higher enrichment. Iran would export its stockpile of highly enriched uranium for final processing to 20 percent, for use in medical isotopes."

In exchange, Iran would get … nothing, at least right away. Ignatius suggests that the Europeans would agree to delay implementing their oil embargo, set to take effect July 1, and the Americans would delay their own fresh round of sanctions due to be implemented in late June.

Frankly, I don’t see how this can work. There do seem to be signs that Khamenei is laying the political groundwork for a deal, for instance by bringing his pragmatic former president, Ali Hashemi Rafsanjani, back into his good graces. But any deal that doesn’t visibly benefit Iran —  rather than merely preventing future harm — will inevitably be viciously attacked within the country’s fragmented political system. And I suspect, given his past behavior, that the supreme leader will stick his finger in the air before staking out a clear public position.

It seems equally unlikely that President Obama will risk handing an electoral issue to his rival Mitt Romney by making any real concessions to Tehran. Americans may not be eager to fire up the B-52s — and the Pentagon certainly isn’t — but they don’t want to see their president look weak. And even if Obama did cut a deal, Republicans and pro-Israel groups would likely make a lot of noise, and might even be able to derail it.

Then there’s Israel, which has set the bar extremely high for these negotiations, insisting among other things that Iran shut down its Fordow enrichment plant — the one it spent years building in secrecy and burying 200 meters beneath a mountain outside the city of Qom at a cost of millions of dollars. Indeed, everything the Obama administration agrees to apparently has to be vetted with the Israelis, who have completely unrealistic notions about what Iran is willing to accept.

Moreover, the intricately choreographed arrangements of the type Ignatius suggests seem hard to imagine given the deep levels of distrust between the two sides. It beggars belief to think that two countries whose diplomats will barely even sit in a room with one another can work out "confidence-building measures" that will survive the political maelstrom news of a deal would unleash. We are not anywhere close to a Nixon going to China moment, in any sense of that hackneyed historical analogy.

What will most likely happen, as Time‘s Tony Karon lays out here, is that the can gets kicked further down the road: Talks will proceed for the sake of talks, and a decision about whether to bomb will be deferred until at least November (unless Iran crosses a red line like installing next-generation centrifuges at Fordow).

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that if you want to know what the Obama administration is thinking, read David Ignatius. But don’t expect to be optimistic once you do.