By Fareed Zakaria
It's difficult to know what to make of the failure to arrive at an agreement between the West and Tehran over Iran’s nuclear program. The high level talks have ended, and negotiations are scheduled to resume at a lower level in 10 days.
Secretary of State John Kerry's comments seemed the most sensible. "It was always going to be hard to arrive at a deal with Iran when the mistrust was so deep and had gone on for so long," he said.
But what was remarkable was the tone of the negotiators as they broke up. Both the Iranians and the main Western negotiator, Catherine Ashton of the European Union, were positive and constructive, believing that much progress has been made.
There were voices that were much less positive. Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized what he described as, "The deal of the century." His aides explained that Iran was going to get everything it wanted in return for nothing. "A mess of pottage," said one of them, making a biblical allusion. The other critic of the deal appears to have been French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. France's hard-line position actually allowed Washington to look reasonable, though for some it proved that no matter what position the United States takes, you can count on France to try to sabotage it.
But the criticisms of the deal sound like alarmist hype to me. The basic agreement that might have been inked was that Iran would temporarily freeze its nuclear program, including its uranium enrichments in return for some relief from Western sanctions. During that period, about six months, serious negotiations would take place to arrive at a final agreement. The key here is what kind of sanctions relief were the Iranians going to get?
The answer is clear – not much. The Obama administration was not proposing that any of the major sanctions against Iran be lifted or even suspended. Those are all passed by the U.S. Congress and couldn't be lifted easily anyway.
Instead, it was proposing to take some pretty minor steps. Europe has more flexibility on sanctions, but, from what we've heard, those countries were also proposing relief of very small kinds.
Now, the argument is that Iran should make significant concessions, but that the West should make none at all. That's not negotiations, that's a requirement that the other side surrender. Which makes one wonder, do the critics of this negotiating process want a better deal or do they really want no deal at all so that it opens up another path to deal with the problem, which is war.
In that case, the danger for those critics was not that the Geneva negotiations were failing, but rather that they were succeeding.