As President Bill Clinton tells it, Yasser Arafat wanted to wear something controversial to the White House ceremony in which Israelis and Palestinians signed the Oslo Accords in 1993: his handgun. While Clinton convinced Arafat, then chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, to leave his firearm behind--and then convinced Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to shake hands with Arafat--in truth, a gun abandoned only for a few hours is a good symbol of the tortured road that Israelis and Palestinians have traveled ever since. The closest the two sides have come to realizing the promise of a peaceful two-state solution imagined by Oslo was during a two-month period in the closing days of Clinton's presidency that began 14 years ago this week.
In negotiations that started at Camp David and continued in the Egyptian town of Taba, Palestinians were offered a solution that met 97 percent of their demands. Both sides declared that they had "never been closer to peace." But then, negotiations were halted for a looming Israeli election, with the two sides expressing "a shared belief that the remaining gaps could be bridged." But it was not to be: Israelis elected a prime minister who had no interest in restarting talks, and the hope of Taba died. In the 14 years since, more than 1180 Israelis and 9,100 Palestinians have been killed, Jewish settlers in the West Bank have doubled, and one in four Palestinians remain mired in poverty.
All of which reinforces a fundamental truth: when two sides take political risks and strain to reach agreement, only to see negotiations fall apart, they don't go back to where they were before - they go back to a much angrier version of where they were before. It is a vital lesson to keep in mind this week as representatives from Iran and America reconvene with officials from five other nations in Geneva to restart talks on what has been called, "the sanctions-lifting-and-nuclear-weapon-halting-accord."
While it's difficult to use the word "urgent" about decade-long negotiations that had it latest deadline pushed back for the second time this year, the Iran nuclear talks are entering "now or never" territory. With hardliners on both sides emboldened by the seven-month delay announced on November 24th, it is no exaggeration to say that America and Iran have reached their Taba moment.
It was reported last month that Iran has five times the number of advanced centrifuges capable of spinning uranium into bomb-grade nuclear material than it has previously acknowledged. While Iran claims it only wants to use nuclear power to generate electricity, uranium only needs to be enriched to six percent--and not the near bomb-ready 20 percent that Iran had achieved before diluting it last July to comply with the ongoing nuclear talks. It is also constructing a heavy-water nuclear facility at Arak, which could be used to produce plutonium to make a nuclear bomb.
On these facts, Western negotiators both for and against an agreement largely agree. But from there, the arguments take a sharply different turn.
Those who oppose an agreement with Teheran say:
Iran has been our enemy for 30 years. It is a state sponsor of terror. It is a country responsible for the deaths of thousands of American soldiers. Developing a nuclear bomb has been a priority of its mullahs for decades. The only reason we found out back in 2002 that Iran had secret nuclear facilities was because a dissident exposed it. The United Nations immediately called for a total dismantling of Iran's uranium-enrichment capabilities. When negotiations began 10 years ago, Iran didn't have the ability to build a bomb. But our negotiators abandoned the UN's call and told Iran it could enrich uranium. And today, Iran has the knowledge and the components it needs to produce a bomb. It also has ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons to Tel Aviv or even Europe.
We also know that Iran lies. It agreed to freeze its nuclear program, but then built more advanced centrifuges. It claims to have no interest in building a bomb, and yet we recently learned that it is five times more capable of creating bomb-ready fissile material than it has admitted to. It agreed not to develop its nuclear weapons capacity, but it keeps building the heavy-water reactor at Arak, and it is reportedly developing nuclear weapons at a military facility in Parchin. The worst part is, since Iran won't let inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency into the country to catalog its nuclear program, we have to take its word for it. Yet, Obama is trying to ram these negotiations through--writing a secret letter to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei --while bypassing America's elected representatives in Congress.
This is a country that now has control over capitals in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. The only reason they are going through with the farce of negotiations is to buy time to build weapons. And if Iran has nuclear weapons, then nobody is safe. We should call off these negotiations, bomb Iran's existing nuclear facilities and intensify our economic sanctions until the country is on its knees, abandons its nuclear program, and lets inspectors in. This is a country that only understands strength, not weakness.
On the other hand, those who favor negotiations argue:
With no agreement, there will be no restrictions on Iran's nuclear program, no leverage to force inspections, and no ability to monitor developments. There will be nothing stopping them from building a bomb. With all the tools at our disposal, why would we leave bombing Iran as our only option? Every President has understood the chain reaction it will set off, not only inviting Iran to retaliate, but inviting Iranian allies like Russia and China to retaliate, too."
What the hard-liners don't understand is that this issue has revealed two different Irans. There are the hard-liners, mostly old men, 35 years removed from the revolution. But they are a minority: nearly 70 percent of Iran is under the age of 35. You might have noticed that in October, a leading mullah died--and despite a state-declared, two-day mourning period, nobody turned out. But in November, when a young pop star died, so many young people turned out in the streets that Iranian authorities were caught off-guard.
These young people want to join the world. Studies show that seventy percent of young Iranians use illegal software to access the Internet and satellite TV. These are the young Iranians who turned out in 2009 to protest Iran's reactionary government, and they provided the winning margin for Iran's moderate president, Hassan Rouhani. Meanwhile, Iranian businesses, the Bazaaris, are tired of bribing the Revolutionary Guard and dream of foreign investment coming to Iran. They are looking for reasons to believe in America. By siding with negotiators, we are siding with them, and a different kind of future. If we turn our backs, we send Iran directly back into the hands of Russia and China.
In other words, one choice is to increase sanctions, threaten to bomb facilities and hope a wider war doesn't break out. The other choice is to accept that the Islamic Republic of Iran may one day have the "breakout capacity" to produce nuclear weapons--knowing that it could start a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. So far, there is no third choice.
So which path is better? I lean toward pursuing an agreement.
Turning our backs on Iran now will only hand power back to the hardliners who fear the changes underway in Iran and want to remain on a permanent war footing with the West. On the other hand, a comprehensive agreement would give the West some say over Iran's nuclear program while opening the door to Iran's cooperation in ending the war in Syria and overcoming Islamic State terror in Iraq. It could lead to normalized relations and see Iran pass Russia as Europe's supplier of oil and gas. It could lead Iran to better control Hezbollah, which would be good for Israel. It may also mean that Saudi Arabia becomes more dependent on the U.S., as we would likely assure Riyadh that we would provide cover for them, as we have for Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.
The Israelis and Palestinians had a chance at Taba for an historic breakthrough--and instead, they made the perfect the enemy of the good. They had a moment, and it closed. And that moment has never returned again: just more violence, more suffering, and more unrest against the backdrop of a global economy that is passing them by.
This is the best chance the U.S. and Iran have had in three decades to create a new and better future for in the Middle East. We should take advantage of it.
Stanley Weiss, a global mining executive and founder of Washington-based Business Executives for National Security, has been widely published on domestic and international issues for three decades.