It’s been a busy week or so on the Iran front. Just getting caught up may take a little while. Let’s start with the diplomacy. Technology will be tackled in a follow-up post.

Starting in late June, there were some hints and suggestions from Tehran that they’d like to re-open negotiations with the West on the nuclear issue, but delivered in the least promising way possible. President Ahmadinejad announced that talks would be held, subject to a series of conditions. Also, as a “punishment” for the other side, talks would be delayed until September. It seems that any conciliatory initiative must be wrapped in aggressive language to be acceptable at home.

Nevertheless, in early July, Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy representative, received a “quite long” letter from Saeed Jalili, the Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, who represented Iran last October at the talks in Geneva. It almost seemed as if new talks might be in the air. But in late July, more or less at the same time that Ahmadinejad gave an interview reaffirming his position of June, Jalili sent new letters to Ashton and to the IAEA taking a tougher line. Jalili denounced Ashton’s pursuit of talks in the wake of new sanctions as “astonishing” and “unacceptable,” and the Security Council’s sanctions policy as “irrational” and “illegal.”

Just Say No

Whatever was happening behind the scenes in Tehran, the debate has now been settled in the same way that it it was, more or less, last year — with a speech by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, saying, “No.” The highlight:

We have rejected negotiations with the US for clear reasons. This is because engaging in negotiations under threats and pressure is not in fact considered as negotiation. And it is due to the same reason that the honorable officials of the country have stated that the Islamic Republic is ready to engage in negotiations but not with a US that is seeking to conduct negotiations under threats, sanctions and bullying.

It’s often argued in the U.S. that Iranian flirtations with negotiations are a way of playing for time. That presumes that Iran has a strategy.

There’s probably no real way of knowing, but it would be interesting to learn what precipitated this decision. Perhaps it was something said by an American official? Probably not. But let’s consider the possibilities, anyway.

Admiral Mullen, in the TV Studio, with a Soundbite

Explaining the part about being under threat, Iran’s acting UN ambassador circulated letters pointing to recent remarks by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff ADM Mike Mullen. Here’s what Mullen had to say a few weeks ago on Meet the Press:

MR. GREGORY:  The president has said he is determined to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.  He doesn’t just say it’s unacceptable, he says he’s determined to stop it.  Is force against Iran by the United States on the table in a way that it has not been even in our recent history, past six months, a year?

ADM. MULLEN:  No, I, I think the military actions have been on the table and remain on the table, and certainly in that regard it’s, it’s one of the options that the president has.  Again, I hope we don’t get to that.  But it’s an important option, and it’s one that’s well understood.

MR. GREGORY:  There was a concern among Israelis, among Americans, that there weren’t very many good options when it came to attacking Iran, should it come to that.  Is that still the case?

ADM. MULLEN:  I think that’s the case.

MR. GREGORY:  There aren’t very many good options.

ADM. MULLEN:  No, no.  I mean, there aren’t–it depends on what you mean by that.  None of them are good in a sense that it’s certainly an outcome that I don’t seek, or that, that we wouldn’t seek.  At the same time, and for what I talked about before, is, is not just the consequences of the action itself, but the things that could result after the fact.

MR. GREGORY:  But the military has a plan, should it come to that?

ADM. MULLEN:  We do.

Mullen has never been a fire-breather on Iran, and these remarks were entirely in character.

White House Rashomon

It’s also possible that the Ayatollah was responding to someone more senior than Mullen. Back in early August, President Obama appeared at a briefing given to a handful of journalists to discuss American policy on Iran. He was followed by a group of senior administration officials who spoke on background. The only problem is, everyone in the room came away with a different impression of exactly what was being said. So if Khamenei truly understood the message, he’s more discerning than this reader.

The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder thought the intended point was to declare that the sanctions policy was starting to bite, and that the Iranians might be reconsidering their position, although it’s possible they might never do so.

David Ignatius of the Washington Post believed Obama was appealing for a return to negotiations.

Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic thought the President and his national security team were taking a “victory lap,” highlighting the achievement represented by getting tougher sanctions through the Security Council.

As related by ABC’s Christiane Amanpour, the message was carefully balanced between willingness to pursue further sanctions and willingness to negotiate, although the details weren’t spelled out in either case.

On the basis of the talk, Time‘s Joe Klein predicted a return to negotiations in September. He also described background briefings on Iran’s difficulties in the face of tougher financial sanctions and its continuing struggles with its centrifuges at Natanz.

David Sanger of the New York Times paired the briefing with an earlier conversation with Secretary of State Clinton, and concluded that the two statements “indicated a move to re-emphasize opening diplomatic channels.”

Robert Kagan of the Washington Post saw the session as emphasizing the success of the sanctions while betraying “no illusions” about the potential for negotiations. He chided others present for misconstruing Obama’s intent.

Chiming in again, Jeffrey Goldberg related a follow-up conversation in which he asked a senior administration official if the president had been unveiling a new diplomatic initiative. The response? “That’s not why you were there.”

On the basis of this news coverage and commentary, I cannot divine the message. So here’s a modest proposal. Why not release a transcript?