Don't expect any breakthroughs with Tehran at the six-power nuclear talks beginning Wednesday in Baghdad, the Obama administration's former top official for Iran Dennis Ross said Tuesday, despite a recent flurry of reporting suggesting otherwise.
"I don't believe that we should be looking at tomorrow as being a make-or-break meeting where if there isn't an unmistakable breakthrough then the process isn't a real process," Ross said on a conference call. "One doesn't need to see a breakthrough in these talks. That's unrealistic at this point. The idea that you have a breakthrough after only two rounds, I think, given everything going on, is just not realistic."
There isn't unlimited time to strike a deal with Iran, Ross cautioned. But in order for real progress to be made, he said, the talks have to continue on a regular, predictable schedule.
"There needs to be an indication that the talks really do have a kind of intensive ongoing character and they're meeting on almost what I would describe as nearly a continuous basis," he said.
Ross returned to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) last November after almost three years in the Obama administration, first with the State Department and then with the National Security Council as the senior director for southwest Asia, a portfolio that spanned a geographical region from Iran to Morocco.
The administration shouldn't announce any deadlines for the talks, which began last month in Istanbul, but should have a private time frame in mind, he said, emphasizing that any progress with Iran could take several months to achieve.
"If you're really into a process that's designed to produce understandings or become clear that that's not possible, month-to-month is simply not realistic. Look, in the past, oftentimes when proposals were given to the Iranians it took them months on end even to respond or to digest," he said.
"I think the key here is you want to send a signal that we're serious, but we're not desperate for an agreement ... we're not pushing prematurely to try to produce an outcome before you've had a chance to have the kind of discussions that are credible enough to determine whether such an outcome is possible."
Ross said that administration's basic approach to Iran has not changed and that the drive was still to find confidence-building measures that could halt Iran's forward progress on nuclear development and create space for a more comprehensive, mutually agreed solution.
"I think the administration's approach at this juncture is more a ‘let's go step by step, let's do confidence building because first we want to see if we can stop the clock' [approach]. Then it gives us time and space to try to deal more fundamentally with their program," he said.
Ross doubled down on his message of cautious optimism in a policy analysis posted today on the WINEP website, in which he listed several of the confidence-building measures under consideration.
"The challenge is to test the meaning of the talks without conveying either desperation or a rush to premature conclusions. The current approach of the P5+1 in the talks is guided by a confidence-building step-by-step logic that could work over time but runs the risk of letting Tehran play for time without revealing whether a real deal is even possible," he wrote, referring to the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany.
In Congress, there is bipartisan opposition to any interim agreement with the Iranians that includes the kinds of confidence-building measures Ross is proposing, as written in a Feb. 17 letter signed Sens. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Jim Risch (R-ID), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), John McCain (R-AZ), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Pat Toomey (R-PA), Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC).
"We would strongly oppose any proposal that caps or limits sanctions against the Iranian regime in exchange for anything less than full, verifiable, and sustained suspension of all enrichment activities, including both 3 percent and 20 percent enrichment," the senators wrote. "The time for confidence building measures is over."
FP researcher Allison Good contributed reporting.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.