Negotiations Back in the Picture

This weekend saw an encouraging resurgence of the word 'negotiations' in the conversation around Iran's nuclear program. After several weeks where talk of military conflict has dominated the discussion, it is a welcome change. 

Sanctions have always been intended to pressure Iran to come to the negotiating table to reach a deal that allows an Iranian civilian nuclear program that is compliant with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to which they are a party. The European Union (EU) made diplomacy a clear priority while announcing a new round of European sanctions yesterday and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently reaffirmed that goal in a statement following Iran's announcment of a new enrichment facility. 

We reaffirm that our overall goal remains a comprehensive, negotiated solution that restores confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program while respecting Iran's right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy consistent with its obligations under the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

But reporting around the issue has lately leaned toward military strikes, with some commentators urging out and out war. In a trend scarily reminiscent of the lead-up to the Iraq war, reporters from some of the nation's most prominent newspapers have bought into the idea that war is inevitable,  or even, already begun

Take this lede of a January 12, 2012 article in the New York Times, for example: 

As arguments flare in Israel and the United States about a possible military strike to set back Iran's nuclear program, an accelerating covert campaign of assassinations, bombings, cyberattacks and defections appears intended to make that debate irrelevant....

And two weeks ago, the New York Times ran a front page article predicting election year disaster for Obama over Iran's program.  

“To appear to back off, when the Iranians are proceeding pell-mell with their nuclear program, would be very difficult for the administration, particularly in an election year,” said Stuart E. Eizenstat, a former senior official at the Treasury and State Departments who helped draft sanctions against Iran during the Clinton administration.”

Some of this pro-war impression may have been due to error.

Arthur Brisbane, the Times' Public Editor, concurred with reader criticisms that the Times had overstated the conclusions of the latest International Atomic Energy Agency report to infer that the Iranian nuclear program was definitively aimed at the development of a weapon. The mistake was later repeated by PBS News Hour.

Around the same time, the Washington Post had to correct its headline three times, moving from the (inaccurate) aggressive "Goal of Iran sanctions is regime collapse, U.S. official says" to the more accurate "Public ire one goal of Iran sanctions, U.S. official says."

By comparison, however, this weekend's rhetoric moves toward greater integrity in reporting. Bill Keller at the New York Times (who recently issued a long-overdue apology for his support of war in Iraq) effectively debunked the case for war in Iran on the op-ed pages attack on Iran is almost certain to unify the Iranian people around the mullahs and provoke the supreme leader to redouble Iran’s nuclear pursuits, only deeper underground this time, and without international inspectors around. Over at the Pentagon, you sometimes hear it put this way: Bombing Iran is the best way to guarantee exactly what we are trying to prevent.

But it was the Times World News section that included the word negotiations: Iran Urged to Negotiate as West Readies New Sanctions.

Is this rhetorical shift a sign that Iran has "blinked" as Washington Post columnist David Ignatius termed it, backing away from its threat to close the Straits of Hormuz? A sign that reality is prevailing upon policy makers in the West? Or is it a little bit of both?

Photo by West Point Public Affairs