07/16/2014 01:46 pm ET Updated Sep 15, 2014

Iran Toward Something -- But What?

"What's going to happen in the Iran nuclear negotiations?" is not the question you expect from an inebriated, World Cup-watching buddy, but it was posed to me nonetheless. The short answer -- "who the hell knows" -- is far from satisfactory, yet anything else is purely speculation of the worst kind.

Top diplomats representing the world's leading nations and Iran negotiate in Vienna; the rest of us wait for one of three possible outcomes. The first is a comprehensive agreement eliminating the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon. The second is a complete collapse of the talks. And the third is a commitment to keep negotiating under the terms of the "interim deal," which froze Iran's weapons program in return for very limited relief. Options one and three are both victories; option two, not so much.

That being said, the sheer force of American will got us this far. The unprecedented sanctions the United States imposed on Iran managed to bring its leaders to the negotiating table. A definitive answer to the Iranian nuclear problem can only be accomplished by one of arguably two things: negotiations or war. There is no guarantee of either, but one costs a great deal of blood and treasure whereas the other's in airfare and hotel rooms in Vienna (or Oman). Earlier (or ongoing) programs such as the cyber war campaign "Olympic Games" achieved some success, but it was never going to be enough to end the threat.

After the eight long years of President George W. Bush's "Cowboy Diplomacy" of black and white pronouncements, "dumb war" and shortsightedness, President Obama has reintroduced subtlety and nuance to our dealings with the rest of the world. This is not to say Mr. Obama has been weak -- instead, he has pursued a policy of trying to either (a) solve problems before they erupt or (b) use "soft power" -- using America's ability to attract and co-opt rather than coerce, use force or give money as a means of persuasion -- before rushing to send men and women in uniform into battle.

There are many indications that Iran wants the ability to make a nuclear weapon, but saying so to the international community is frowned upon. "But there are tons of countries with nuclear weapons, hell -- North Korea and Pakistan have 'em," as my drunken friend from above countered. Herein lies the crux of the issue: Iranian leaders have publicly called for the destruction of Israel (and do not speak particularly highly of the U.S. either). Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, several of his predecessors, and even his opposition in Israel have labeled Iran as an "existential threat." Additionally, Iran's possession of nuclear weapons would undoubtedly trigger an arms race in the Middle East with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other Sunni countries feeling the need to counteract Iran.

Nuclear weapon control -- and specifically, the prohibition of an Iranian bomb -- has been one of Mr. Obama's foreign policy priorities for just this reason. No one wins, and in a worst-case scenario, everyone dies.

"So," the now belligerently drunk friend asks, "what good can come from talking -- and wanna split some fries?" A great deal of good has already come from President Obama's approach. There has been a six-month pause in Iranian progress on the nuclear front. Iran elected a more moderate president in response to the previous leadership's isolation from the global community. Rigorous oversight has been put into place -- as Reagan's old favorite saying goes, "trust, but verify" -- with IAEA gaining access to nuclear sites. This approach galvanized global support -- especially from the Israelis who needed to be walked back from air campaigns to bomb Iran.

Ultimately, the value lies in the outcomes. An extension in talks gets a longer pause as the negotiators works towards a comprehensive deal. None of this would have happened without a determined president and Senate who wrangled the world into enforcing sanctions on Iran. We must keep moving forward by rooting for diplomacy and avoiding yet another costly, shortsighted war in the Middle East.

The now cross-eyed, disappointed World Cup-watching friend, fell asleep. We can only hope the world pays greater attention to what could be the most consequential foreign policy issue of our time.