If I were to walk into two separate movie theaters in Anywhere, USA -- one playing, say, Casablanca and the other Caddyshack -- and asked folks to raise their hands if they are actively concerned with averting war with Iran, I think it wouldn't matter which crowd I polled. The show of hands would be about the same: small. Maybe that's because the information stream on U.S. relations with Iran is forked at odd angles and pinched to a trickle where it counts.
U.S. relations with Iran become more acrid with each passing year. Punitive measures to get that country to knuckle under are ensuring a humanitarian crisis that will hardwire hatred in Iranian citizens for generations to come. An outright attack would do much worse -- for both our countries.
If I were to tell the same disaffected moviegoers that they had the power to change the course of events, I might see a few more volunteers. Here are some suggestions for them.
But first, the information stream needs some freeflow. And fewer forks. Let's reduce it to just three tines:
1) Nations in the West want guarantees that Iran is neither trying to nor able to produce an atomic bomb.
2) Iran's production of highly enriched uranium (which could also be intended for non-violent purposes and is not weapons-grade) is the red flag.
3) Sanctions against Iran would take the form of cutting off the flow of oil, in addition to other sanctions the United States has been imposing for decades.
Where are we now with these points?
Days of meetings hosted by Russian President Vladimir Putin started June 18th in Moscow with Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany. A primary reason for the breakdown in negotiations so far is that the countries putting pressure on Iran (who are receiving pressure from the United States) are setting unrealistic expectations. The demand -- as an unbelievable pre-condition to negotiations -- is for "zero enrichment" rather than allowing what the international community considers peaceful activity -- up to the point where bombs could be rapidly created.
Iran allegedly exacerbated the problem by refusing to declare completely its uranium enrichment activities to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Some leaders feel that recalcitrance alone is cause to cut them off. Meanwhile, Iranian officials express support for a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in the Middle East, but Israel has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and possesses nuclear weapons and an active nuclear arms program.
Both Israel and the United States declare that Iran is not capable of producing nuclear weapons, yet the sanctions loom as punishment for non-compliance with the zero rule. Iran's nuclear technology projects include the production of atomic energy and the creation of a research reactor for medical use.
Congress is willfully obstructing progress by cleaving to the zero enrichment demand in accordance with the wishes of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while the red line adopted by the U.S. president and the Pentagon is simpler: No nuclear weapon. Past breakthroughs that would have led to reductions in Iran's stockpile of enriched uranium have been forfeited thanks to congressional stonewalling.
President Obama cannot do much that is risky in an election year, but he cannot do much of anything at all if Congress doesn't allow him negotiating power he needs to let Iran comply. He missed his easier chance when there was a Democratic majority in Congress. Sanctions are about to get worse according to plan.
If Iran agrees to submit to transparent inspections, they should get to enrich uranium to the internationally agreed upon (and unusually restrictive) 20 percent. The president must be empowered to lift the sanctions and to halt the issuance of further sanctions in exchange for this.
Do the math: Zero nuclear technology allowance plus zero inspection requirement equals planned failure. Planned failure points to a military attack on Iran.
What's a person to do?
Let's say I locked the exits on those two movie theaters and forced both groups to come up with a plan of action based on suggested ideas.
They could conjure ways to show politicians and voters how diplomacy is preferable to war. After the negotiations in Moscow, they could band together and write a public letter to the president urging long-term diplomacy with Iran and asserting that sanctions should be lifted in exchange for inspections. They could be audacious and call a meeting with high-level officials.
But maybe some people refuse to act due to reasoned cynicism. They know too much. Reality check? New sanctions have passed in both the House and Senate. According to govtrack.us, the bill has a 42 percent likelihood of being enacted. The drumbeat in Congress for zero enrichment is growing stronger, raising the question of whether the talks are designed to fail so interested parties can benefit. The President could lose leverage, but maybe he wants it that way! Iran's predictable reaction to the sanctions is to threaten to close the Strait of Hormuz, the passage through which a large percentage of the world's oil supply moves, determining global oil prices and, therefore, the state of the world's economy.
But it's the bad news that gets the shakers moving. My guess is American ingenuity would triumph in both movie houses, and innovative solutions would roll. People just have to know that the power is in their hands.
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