Diplomacy between Iran and the United States has entered the opening gambit stage and Iran appears to be winning at this point.

The game began on July 19, when Iranian nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili met with European negotiators with an American diplomat, Under Secretary of State William J. Burns, present for the first time at such a meeting since the Iranian hostage crisis.

The presence of William J. Burns riled many anti-Iranian forces resulting in a flurry of pronouncements and articles about American “capitulation” to Iran. The recriminations continued. Even now, on August 5, former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, a notorious anti-Iran detractor, wrote a fulminating article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “While Diplomats Dither, Iran Builds Nukes.”

The Bush administration clearly found itself in a difficult situation, needing to placate hawks like Bolton and Vice-President Dick Cheney while seeming to allow diplomacy to have a chance, so they made the talks not about substance, but about power – which side could compel the other to toe the line.

So the Bush administration started with a big lie. At the time of the July meeting the press and the State Department announced that Iran had a two-week deadline to respond to the European proposals, (the exact details of which remain secret, but which are presumed to include an extensive basket of technology, economic, and trade incentives).

There was no such deadline. It appears to have been a fiction. However, this falsehood gave Washington and the press the opportunity on August 2 to announce that Iran had “rejected” the deadline. The New York Times went so far as to call it an “informal deadline,” a head-scratching concept.

Iranian Foreign Minister, Manouchehr Mottaki was reported by Agence France Press to have said, “The language of deadline-setting is not understandable to us. We gave them our response within a month as we said we would, now they have to reply to us.”

Even the State Department itself had to back down from the fictional deadline. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack threatened further sanctions if Iran did not respond on Wednesday, July 30. But he had changed his tune on Saturday, August 2, the putative deadline. “I didn’t count the days. It’s coming up soon,” he said. And when asked when Washington would pull incentives off the table designed to persuade Iran to abandon its uranium enrichment program, said “there is no indication of that.

So little happened at the July 19 meeting, it could hardly be called a diplomatic encounter. In fact, Iran has been pursuing a productive diplomatic course. Rather than responding to deadlines and ultimatums, Iran has steadily put forward proposals for resolving its differences with the European and American governments over its nuclear energy program. It is clear that Iran will not give up its “inalienable right” to peaceful development of nuclear energy, as enshrined in Article IV of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which it (but not India, Pakistan or Israel) is a signatory. It seeks other means, short of suspending uranium enrichment, to assure the world that it has no active nuclear weapons program.

Iran’s proposal for negotiations presented to the European Nations is titled “The Modality For Comprehensive Negotiations” and sets out three stages of proceedings.

  • Preliminary Talks. Overall determination of the negotiating timetable.
  • Start of Talks. Actions against Iran would be suspended and common ground matters would be discussed.
  • Negotiations. Actual negotiating stage which the Iranians envision should last two months, but could be extended by mutual consent.

Iran does not agree in this document to suspend uranium enrichment. The document states in the negotiation stage that determinations regarding Iran’s compliance with the Nuclear Non-proliferation treaty would be “concluded in the UNSC [United Nations Security Council] and fully and completely returned to the Agency [The International Atomic Energy Agency].”

This is a reasonable blueprint for forward negotiations, and it represents a real diplomatic effort on Iran’s part. By contrast, the United States seems to have acted with a combination of bluff and muscle, and has gotten nowhere for their efforts.

This has not stopped the United States and its European allies for calling on August 4 for more sanctions based on Iran’s violation of the “informal deadline.” This is an astonishing exercise in diplomatic audacity – calling for punishment where there could be no violation, there being no mutual agreement of the conditions under which actions would be declared a violation. Unfortunately, the political climate against Iran being what it is, such an unwarranted bellicose move will likely go unquestioned.

Except by Iran.

Iran had its own gambits in mind to retain control of the process. After the accusations and the threats by the European and U.S. consortium, they countered with a grim reminder that they could close the Strait of Hormuz, through which two-thirds of OPEC crude oil passes. They tested some new conventional missiles. Then they announced that they would indeed answer the European proposals – but in their own time and on their own timetable, according to their own agenda. They were clearly working through their own negotiation plan step by step, catching the United States off guard, and throwing everyone in Washington off their game, leaving them to continue their slow burn.

The question is whether, out of frustration or pique, the impatient Washington detractors will upset the table.

Foreign Policy In Focus contributor William O. Beeman is professor and chair of the department of anthropology at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. He is president of the Middle East Section of the American Anthropological Association and the author, most recently, of The "Great Satan" vs. the "Mad Mullahs": How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other.

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