06/15/2012 06:12 pm ET Updated Aug 15, 2012

Storm Clouds Over Moscow Nights

Controls on Iran's nuclear program are what's on the agenda in negotiations that resume Monday in Moscow. But the atmosphere surrounding them is heavy with storm clouds -- some forming over Syria and others emanating from Israel -- that threaten wider conflict, roiled oil markets, and regional war.

An American public sobered by painful wars in the Middle East has a deep stake in a negotiated end to the nuclear impasse, something the Bush administration had rejected in the heady aftermath of its invasion of Iraq, to its later regret. Unfortunately, political winds are now blowing in Washington that would set unachievable goals for these talks, ensure their rancorous breakdown, drive a deep wedge among the major powers, and bring us to the brink of another unnecessary war.

Perhaps the most remarkable development on the Iranian nuclear front in recent years has been the major-power unity in facing down Tehran. All five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council have been held tightly together in demanding strict international controls on Iran's nuclear program -- including Russia and China, whose continued support for Syria's government has deeply vexed Washington.

That unity of purpose resulted in the strong global sanctions regime imposed by the Security Council two years ago, even though Russia and China could have seized on a Turkish-Brazilian initiative with Tehran to delay adoption of the sanctions. There is no doubt that the U.N. sanctions resolution stunned the Iranian government, as has the noose of financial sanctions and, imminently, of an embargo on Iranian oil that the Obama administration and Europeans have pulled ever tighter in the wake of that resolution.

But that unity of purpose -- already under a bit of strain by Washington's public hectoring of Russia and China over Syria -- will come apart if the United States insists on goals deemed excessive by the rest of the permanent five Security Council members plus Germany, the so-called "P5+1" negotiating group.

A negotiation can only succeed if both sides secure their most important objectives. For Iran, the core objective in these negotiations is Western acknowledgment of the country's "right" to enrich uranium. Most of the "P5+1" countries seem prepared to accept as an accomplished fact Iran's continuing enrichment of uranium, so long as it is at very low levels and under strict controls. But Washington has continued to hold out the hope -- voiced since the Bush years and pressed now with particular force by the Israeli government -- of forcing Iran to abandon enrichment altogether.

Given the Iranians' single-minded investment in enrichment and in whipping up Iranian public support for it as a "legitimate national right," no one envisions a scenario in which they would surrender it. Even hawks advocating military attacks on Iran do not claim Iran would give up on enrichment afterward.

Still, there is a sense in some Washington circles that the existing sanctions have Iran on the ropes, and that the Europeans' imposition of an embargo on importing any oil from Iran scheduled to kick in on July 1, can bring them to their knees. This surely overstates what sanctions can accomplish.

Yes, sanctions do put major pressure on the targeted economy. In Iran's case, New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof this week reported hearing in his trip across the country considerable public grumbling at the economic hardships the tin-ear Tehran leadership has caused in people's lives by blundering into sanctions. But if sanctions are a formidable bargaining chip in negotiations, they do not compel unconditional surrender.

More insidious than a misplaced faith in the coercive power of sanctions is the political demand for negotiating instructions that are certain to fail. Two U.S. senators, New Jersey's Robert Menendez (facing re-election this fall) and Missouri's Roy Blunt, were this week reported to be soliciting signatures among colleagues for a Senate letter on Iran drafted by AIPAC, the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee.

The letter would set out ambitious demands for the Moscow negotiations, including the closure of Iranians' suspect nuclear facility at Fordow and an immediate freezing of uranium enrichment beyond 5 percent -- but rule out any accommodation to Iran in return, except a promise to continue talking. A demand of something for nothing is certain -- and probably intended -- to be rejected.

The Europeans could, however, reward an interim 5 percent cap on Iranian enrichment -- coupled with a signed Iranian inspections accord with the International Atomic Energy Agency -- with a six-month deferral of their own oil embargo, thus paving the way for continued negotiation into the fall (and past the American election). Such sanctions relief could also yield a short-term drop in oil prices, helping Europe (and perhaps the U.S.) economically at a difficult moment. The Obama administration could join the other "P5+1" in agreeing that, at the end of negotiations, it would be prepared to accept strictly limited Iranian enrichment under tight international controls.

Washington will rightly hold firm in denying that Iran -- or any country -- has an "inalienable" right under the nuclear nonproliferation treaty to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. Enrichment is strictly conditional on no possibility of diversion for weapons manufacture. Given past Iranian dissembling on its nuclear program intentions, the conditionality must be strict indeed.

Fortunately, the Iranian authorities have never gone public claiming they have a right to nuclear weapons, so they face no humiliating climb-down in accepting a tough international verification regime. If Congress gives Obama political space to negotiate, he can achieve a settlement that ensures there is no Iranian nuclear arsenal -- and no mindlessly destructive war.