Each side, East and West, had its own agenda as the twain met in Geneva last week. No wonder the late League of Nations chose Geneva as the site for all its futile deliberations. It's a lovely city on a lake and a fine place to take a vacation from all the petty irritations and frustrations of the real world. Like how to achieve a real peace.
Anyone who's read even a little history about Europe between the Wars will know the formula for an officially successful negotiation: talk a lot and achieve little if anything. Except maybe the next, bigger and worse war.
The only thing that seems to have changed about such formal conclaves since the Roaring Twenties and Drab Thirties is that the diplomats no longer wear wing collars and striped pants. Flowery blouses and dresses now crop up in the group photographs. But little else seems to have changed over the years. Especially the futility of international conferences. That the aims of the High Contracting Parties involved in such conferences may be diametrically opposed is but a minor detail that never seems to get in the way of the Pollyannas who write the communiqués.
The aim of Iran's mullahs in these latest negotiations at Geneva is to end the West's crippling sanctions on their country's economy. Which is understandable. Iran's oil exports have fallen sharply, its currency is largely worthless, its banks paralyzed, and the natives grow restless.
For the West, the aim is to keep Iran's nuclear program from producing a nuclear weapon, which by now is almost within reach. If only Iran's military-industrial complex can buy a little more time at Geneva, all these oh-so-solemn proceedings will prove but abstractions. Which is why Iran's diplomats are willing to talk, and talk and talk, at Geneva. So long as those centrifuges can keep whirring and Iran's supply of enriched uranium keeps mounting.
That sound you hear in the background of these negotiations is an atomic clock ticking. For the work proceeds apace at Isfahan and Natanz and Qom ... and sites still to be disclosed. Till it's too late, and the fog of diplomacy is replaced by a mushroom cloud.
Don't be concerned. Great progress is being made at Geneva, where last week the diplomats looked over their work and pronounced it good.
The head of the European Union's diplomatic delegation there, the Rt. Hon. Catherine Ashton, Baroness Ashton of Upholland, assured the world that last week's "very important" negotiations had entered a "new phase," not to be confused with the decade of deceptive deadlock that preceded them.
Iran's foreign minister concurred: "We have reached a serious stage in the talks."
Our own State Department's spokesperson, Jennifer Psaki, declared the discussions "substantive," which is almost as assuring as State's official line after the unfortunate events at Benghazi.
Even the White House's press secretary, Jay Carney himself, weighed in on this happy occasion: "The Iranian proposal is a new proposal with a level of seriousness and substance that we had not seen before." And we all know how trustworthy Jay Carney's words have proven. Not since Ron Ziegler occupied his position in the Nixon administration has a press secretary been so reliable a source.
If all these assurances aren't enough to leave you as bubbly and full of good cheer as that first glass of champagne, followed by a few more, Americans can always rely on the editorials in the ever in-vogue New York Times. The word from the Times is that anybody who criticizes these negotiations is just "sabotaging diplomacy," and that goes especially for Israel's Bibi Netanyahu, who keeps demonstrating a stubborn interest in keeping his pesky little country from being wiped off the map, troublemaker that he is.
All these stately proceedings at Geneva have an unreal yet familiar air. Like a nightmare that keeps recurring. Only those who think past experience might be of some use in assaying current events may recall another series of negotiations, those conducted by another administration with another ruthless regime. And how well they were going before they succeeded only in giving the world another nuclear power, and scarcely the most peace-loving one at that.
Back in 2005, which is almost another age in a country as historically amnesiac as the United States of Forgetfulness, the ancien régime known as the Bush administration announced to great fanfare that North Korea -- yes, the sealed hermit kingdom itself -- had just agreed to any number of concessions (meaningless, as it turned out) and would give up its plans to produce a nuclear weapon. Hooray! Let the confetti fly!
Leading the celebrants back then, Gentle Reader will not be surprised to learn, was the (no longer) good gray New York Times, which could scarcely contain its jubilation:
"For years now, foreign policy insiders have pointed to North Korea as the ultimate nightmare ... a closed, hostile and paranoid dictatorship with an aggressive nuclear weapons program. Very few could envision a successful outcome (to these negotiations). And yet North Korea agreed in principle this week to dismantle its nuclear weapons program ... and admit international inspectors. Diplomacy, it seems, does work after all."
For a while. Within a year, Pyongyang had set off its first nuclear explosion. Just as Teheran will soon be in a position to do. Thanks to our diplomatic corps' inexhaustible capacity for wishful thinking. It's a charming trait, really, and a very American one. If only it didn't come at such a high price.