While You Were Reading About Ukrainian Nurses …

Real news was buried in WikiLeaks -- like this revealing cable on Iran's nuclear ambitions.


For nearly eight years of my life, I read State Department cable traffic — mostly dealing with Iran and the Middle East — on a daily basis. Regular readers of cables from the field have at least one advantage when encountering WikiLeaks: They are less distracted by the voyeuristic aspects. There is a certain titillation involved in reading other people’s mail or listening secretly to their private conversations, but after enough exposure the thrill diminishes. In time, one must ask oneself what any of this actually means in terms of policy. Often the answer is: "Not very much."

It’s now conventional wisdom that the WikiLeaked cables, too, didn’t have much new to say. But not everything should be so easily dismissed — and among the thousands of cables that have come out, even beyond the few to make the front page, there are still some fascinating nuggets. What do State Department officials really say to each other about policy when they think no outsiders are listening?

We have learned that officials at the U.S. Embassy in Tunis were scathing and contemptuous about the Tunisian government, even as it was touted as one of America’s authoritarian allies in the Arab world. They didn’t predict the Tunisian revolution, but they at least understood where it was coming from.

But they are not always so prescient. Take, for example, the notes of a conversation between U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Ankara on Nov. 12, 2009.

Six weeks earlier, Iran had tentatively agreed to export 1,200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium to Russia, where it would be enriched to nearly 20 percent and then shipped to France to be fabricated into plates. Eventually, it was to be returned to Iran to fuel its research reactor in Tehran, which produces isotopes for medical purposes. Although the details were a bit complex, the deal was a classic bargain: Iran would get fuel for its reactor (and tacit acceptance of its enrichment program), and the West would ensure Iran’s stash of low-enriched uranium was reduced below the amount necessary to produce a nuclear weapon.

But the Iranian negotiators ran into a backlash at home from conservatives, fueled in part by ill-advised European boasts that the deal represented a victory over Iran. So Iran backtracked, insisting its low-enriched uranium could only be relinquished at the moment the fuel assemblies were provided. This led to a range of alternative proposals, in which Turkey came to play a critical role as an intermediary between Iran, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the major parties to the negotiation.

In the November cable, Davutoglu, coming fresh from two long "harsh" sessions with the Iranians in Istanbul, gave Gordon quite an unusual picture of what was really going on in Iran. Based on their very candid discussions, the Turks saw Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as "more flexible" on this issue than others inside the Iranian government but still under "huge pressure" from conservatives. Despite all the bad blood, the Iranians told the Turks that they would prefer to get the reactor fuel directly from the United States rather than from Russia and that they trusted the Americans more than the British. The Turks asked Ahmadinejad point blank if the core of the issue was psychological rather than substance. Ahmadinejad said that it was, yes, basically a matter of public perception.

But Gordon did not appear to pick up the clear signs that negotiations were in sight. Instead, he responded by chiding Davutoglu for Turkey’s positive public words about Iran and called for a public declaration about the dangers of Iranian nuclear proliferation. And as far as I can judge from the public record, the United States never made any further effort to capitalize on the opportunity presented by the Turks. Instead, Washington reverted to the default position of calling for more pressure against Iran.

Then, in May 2010, the United States replayed nearly the exact same sequence when Turkey and Brazil, both of which believed that they were operating with U.S. approval, persuaded Iran to accept the major elements of the deal that had fizzled six months earlier. The United States had never expected the Turkish-Brazilian effort to succeed, and when it did Washington simply turned up its nose in the most humiliating way and proceeded to enact more sanctions. The moral of this story: When it comes to a choice between negotiations and coercion, Washington refuses to take yes for an answer.

We are now approaching the third round of this drama. Iranian negotiators will sit down with Western representatives on Friday and Saturday of this week to reopen discussion of the same set of issues that were discussed in the 2009 cable. Perhaps significantly, the meeting this time will be held in Turkey.

The United States has very few friends or allies that are able to engage the Islamic Republic of Iran directly on nuclear or other sensitive issues. The willingness of President Barack Obama’s administration to spurn such assistance is as disappointing as it is lamentable. Fortunately the Turks have persevered, refusing to take no for an answer.

Is the United States now in listening mode? Or will it continue to look down its nose at those who are trying to help it? The record, unfortunately, provides little grounds for optimism.

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