Seventeen days before Election Day and 45 months after Barack Obama's inauguration following a presidential campaign during which he expressed his eagerness to meet enemy leaders "without preconditions" (Obama responded "yes" to a 2008 presidential debate question containing those words), the New York Times is reporting that the U.S. and Iran "have agreed in principle for the first time to one-on-one negotiations," despite the fact that the White House has "denied that a final agreement (to negotiate) had been reached," and despite a reactive AP report (saved here for future reference, fair use and discussion purposes) claiming that while "The White House says it is prepared to talk one-on-one ... there's no agreement now to meet."
Despite the supposed certainty of the Times's headline ("U.S. Officials Say Iran Has Agreed to Nuclear Talks"), the paper's Helene Cooper and Mark Landler report that "American officials said they were uncertain whether Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had signed off on the effort." If Khamenei isn't on board, it doesn't matter what anybody else, including Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, says or does. Three years ago, two AP reporters covering the government's crackdown on dissidents noted Khamenei's "virtually limitless authority," i.e., he's the country's behind-the-scenes dictator. In a piece that's supposed to be about a supposedly important international development, Cooper and Landler predictably blow through quite a bit of ink and bandwidth trying to paint this development as a problem for Obama's GOP opponent Mitt Romney (bolds are mine):
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... News of the agreement — a result of intense, secret exchanges between American and Iranian officials that date almost to the beginning of President Obama’s term — comes at a critical moment in the presidential contest, just two weeks before Election Day and the weekend before the final debate, which is to focus on national security and foreign policy.
It has the potential to help Mr. Obama make the case that he is nearing a diplomatic breakthrough in the decade-long effort by the world’s major powers to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, but it could pose a risk if Iran is seen as using the prospect of the direct talks to buy time.
It is also far from clear that Mr. Obama’s opponent, Mitt Romney, would go through with the negotiation should he win election. Mr. Romney has repeatedly criticized the president as showing weakness on Iran and failing to stand firmly with Israel against the Iranian nuclear threat.
... The question of how best to deal with Iran has political ramifications for Mr. Romney as well. While he has accused Mr. Obama of weakness, he has given few specifics about what he would do differently.
Moreover, the prospect of one-on-one negotiations could put Mr. Romney in an awkward spot, since he has opposed allowing Iran to enrich uranium to any level — a concession that experts say will probably figure in any deal on the nuclear program.
Beyond that, how Mr. Romney responds could signal how he would act if he becomes commander in chief. The danger of opposing such a diplomatic initiative is that it could make him look as if he is willing to risk another American war in the Middle East without exhausting alternatives.
... Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium bears on another key difference between Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney: whether to tolerate Iran’s enrichment program short of producing a nuclear weapon, as long as inspectors can keep a close eye on it, versus prohibiting Iran from enriching uranium at all. Obama administration officials say they could imagine some circumstances under which low-level enrichment might be permitted; Mr. Romney has said that would be too risky.
But Mr. Romney’s position has shifted back and forth. In September, he told ABC News that his “red line” on Iran was the same as Mr. Obama’s — that Iran may not have a nuclear weapon. But his campaign later edited its Web site to include the line, “Mitt Romney believes that it is unacceptable for Iran to possess nuclear weapons capability.”
Really, guys? You have to go to an edit at the campaign web site to search for a "shift back and forth"? Zheesh.
Given the virtually stenographic relationship between the administration, the Times, and the AP, it's hard to predict what the two news organizations will try to do to build on what they've already put out there. About the only thing we can virtually be certain of is whatever follows won't be arms-length journalism.
Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.