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Iran Nuclear Talks Are Bound to Get Tougher

So now what?

That's the big question following last weekend's talks in Geneva over curbing Iran's nuclear program. The conversation closed without a deal, dashing the hopes of those here in America and abroad who believed that -- after decades of tension and stalemate -- an agreement over Tehran's atomic ambitions might actually be achievable.

Those high hopes have been quickly replaced by heated accusations over who was ultimately responsible for the failure of the weekend talks to result in a nuclear deal, anger and frustration in Iran and questions about whether the negotiating group in Geneva better known as the P5+1 (the U.S., Russia, China, France, Germany and Britain) left the table in a better or worse bargaining position than when the talks began.

Talks are expected to resume later this month, and I'm here to tell you that they are only bound to get tougher moving forward.

What Iran and the P5+1 are aiming to agree upon is a two-part strategy. The first stage of this strategy would include an interim agreement that would temporarily freeze Iran's nuclear program for as long as sixth months and ease more than three decades of crippling economic sanctions and political isolation levied by the West.

The second stage would represent a more comprehensive accord that results in Iran significantly restraining its nuclear program, limiting uranium enrichment and accepting full transparency into the nation's nuclear production in return for lifting the economic sanctions.

Going into last week's Geneva talks, Iran signaled a willingness to accept the outlines of such an accord and start to put an end to the sanctions. Indeed, gaining rapid relief from those sanctions is extremely important to Iran's leaders, who need to demonstrate to their populace that they are making real progress on this front.

For its part, the Obama administration has acknowledged the opportunity before it to make major progress on one of the greatest challenges facing American foreign policy. Indeed, no country has caused the U.S. more past and present heartburn than Iran, which poses complex challenges to our nation's security, and it would be difficult to exaggerate the fundamental mistrust that has existed between our two countries. It's safe to say that such a great opportunity for resolving the standoff over Iran's nuclear program may not come again.

That said, even before the negotiations began, there was cause for concern that hopes and expectations were running too high and were too unrealistic. After talks between Iran and the P5+1 ended last month, many news commentators lamented the lack of a major "breakthrough," even though it was clear that each of the options before us for curtailing Iran's nuclear program contained significant disadvantages.

Those options, which are not mutually exclusive, are:

  • A military strike/preventative war: President Obama has stated that the U.S. will prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons power. One way to quell Iran's nuclear ambitions is to launch a military strike. However, doing so would be difficult and dangerous, and it would almost certainly take more than one strike, as well as the use of special forces, to terminate Iran's nuclear weapons program.
  • Containment: This option is based on the premise that a military strike would be folly for it would simply elicit a united Iran, which would still possess the technical know-how to reconstitute its nuclear program, but this time with less vulnerable facilities. The containment strategy would involve continued economic pressure, including sanctions, on Iran, as well as diplomatic isolation, covert actions and the building up of U.S. military power in and around the Persian Gulf. This strategy, too, is not without risks, including the possibility of additional proliferation and the continued development of Iran's nuclear capacity.
  • Negotiations: This is the option most, but not all, favor, despite the failure of last week's talks to result in a deal that all sides could agree upon.

Our current policy toward Iran contains elements of each of these three options, which, as a statement in itself, offers further indication of just how complicated a country Iran is for the U.S. to deal with. Iran is a country that has been repressive, anti-Semitic and anti-American. At the same time, it has not been reckless or suicidal, and it has shown respect for the strength of American power and policy.

Additionally, there is virtually no evidence that Iran has produced a nuclear weapon. But its nuclear program has steadily advanced. Clearly, the country is developing a broad and deep nuclear expertise that can be converted from peaceful to military at any time. Thus far, though, its leaders have acted with some restraint and haven't crossed any lines.

Economic sanctions have made a real impact in Iran and are, in part, responsible for the change in tone in negotiations. However, the U.S. continues to face real disadvantages in dealing with a difficult-to-understand country, which has withstood sanctions, cyber war and political isolation. In past dealings with Iran, we have lacked patience and have been easily distracted, and our experience in the Middle East in recent years has been very disappointing. Indeed, a number of presidents have tried, unsuccessfully, to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. And while we continue to come to the negotiating table with overwhelming military power, we also possess underwhelming knowledge of the country's complex politics.

On another level, it will be extremely difficult to reach an agreement with Iran if we're unable to reach agreement among our own domestic constituencies and with Israel, which has reacted strongly against the effort to reach an interim agreement. Indeed, the latest negotiations showed a sizeable split between the U.S. and its Israeli allies, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who remain deeply suspicious over Iran's overall intentions in striking a deal.

President Obama will only be in office for three more years. During this time, he'll have to cope with a Congress that includes many members who believe the U.S. should, in support of Israel, ratchet up -- not dial down -- the pressure on Iran and intensify the sanctions, if not use military force. They favor zero enrichment capability and they reject the diplomatic option as it has thus far been revealed, positioning themselves squarely against the president, whose position is that we will have to permit Iran to have a civilian nuclear program, but not a military one.

Obama will not be able to ignore the pressures from these hardline members of Congress, who warn of being too eager to reach a deal and continue to urge very extensive and tough standards for the negotiations that protect our national interest. And even if he is able to persuade Congress that the time has come to lift the sanctions, doing so will be an incredibly complex process, since the sanctions are imposed by numerous governments, including ours, as well as by international bodies such as the United Nations and European Union.

I'm not here to dismiss the negotiations, which I hope will continue on an upward path, or their potential impact. Achieving any sort of deal would be a major accomplishment, as it would help alleviate a large number of problems that continue to plague the Middle East, including the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. This agreement would also give us a better chance to make progress in future negotiations regarding peace between the Palestinians and Israelis, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism. But decades of deep-rooted hostility won't dissipate that easily.

I certainly favor trying to reach a two-stage agreement and continuing the diplomatic track. My hope is that, over time, an agreement can be reached. But we must be prepared to confront the fact that if the negotiations fail, then our best option would be to seriously consider the containment option, which relies on deterrence and our capability for massive retaliation, and prevent a nuclear Iran as we did with the Soviet Union.

The alternative to these negotiations succeeding is very worrisome. It likely means we're moving toward a military intervention, an unappealing scenario that would represent a dangerous and dramatic turn of events from just a few weeks ago, when hopes and expectations were so high.

Lee H. Hamilton is Professor of Practice, Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs; Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; Director, Center on Congress at Indiana University. He served as U.S. Representative from Indiana's 9th Congressional District from 1965-1999.

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