In less than a week, the outcome of the nuclear talks with Iran will be clear. According to one P5+1 diplomat, the possibilities -- ranging from most to least likely -- are an extension of the talks, a comprehensive agreement, or an agreement in principle.
Not on the menu -- at least among the principals at the negotiations -- is a return to the escalatory cycle that defined the past decade and threatened constantly to spill over into war. As the U.S.'s lead negotiator, Wendy Sherman, remarked at a conference in Washington last month, if the talks fail, "escalation is the name of the game, on all sides, and none of that is good." In other words, failure is not an option.
This -- not surprisingly -- comes as a disappointment to some in Washington. Little more than a decade after having advocated war on Iraq, many of the same personalities have sought to bring the U.S. and Iran to the precipice of military conflict. Their efforts were only narrowly averted last summer when secret negotiations in Oman yielded November's interim agreement on the nuclear issue. Since then, President Obama's detractors have taken aim at the talks itself, pouncing on any and all U.S. compromises as paving the way towards nuclear holocaust.
But their messaging, besides being histrionic, has been confused. In the same week where Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed that "the alternative to a bad deal is not war," but more sanctions, leading U.S. hawks, Reuel Marc Gerecht and Mark Dubowitz, wrote that the "wise bet is that sanctions will fail..." -- at least "without other forms of coercion."
What "other forms of coercion" did they have in mind? War, of course.
This cross-signaling bespeaks a broader problem for Washington's warmongers: the nuclear talks have de-escalated tensions between the U.S. and Iran not just on the nuclear issue, but on others as well. This has made their lives difficult because, instead of merely invoking Iran to garner support for their hard-line position, they are now forced to argue the point and to justify why turning our back on dialogue is the right approach.
Because let's face it: Having been involved in constant negotiations with each other for the past year, the U.S. and Iran understand each other better now than at any point over the past 35 years. Moreover, with the Middle East in a turmoil never before seen, both countries have been forced to revisit a calculus that had made each other implacable enemies, incapable of cooperation. If the Middle East and the U.S.'s role in it is to be salvaged, it will have to be on the back of a broader U.S.-Iran détente.
It is a difficult point to argue. With most U.S. troops leaving Afghanistan by the end of the year and the White House prepared to put more boots-on-the-ground in Iraq -- all the while U.S. fighter jets pound Islamic State outposts in Syria -- the idea that the United States can open up a new front with Iran is unsound. Americans have neither the appetite for a new war nor the ability to wage one, and the empty braggadocio of U.S. hawks won't change that fact.
That leaves U.S. hawks in the unenviable position of having to swim against the tide in U.S.-Iran relations. At a time when so many are hopeful for a peaceful resolution to this conflict - both in the United States, in Iran, and around the world - those pushing for war look and sound perverse in their efforts to thwart compromise and kill the negotiations.
Being the last, best chance the United States has at limiting Iran's nuclear program, this pulls the thin veneer that long masked their intentions off for good. Pushing conflict with Iran has never been about the nuclear program, as much as it has about that old desire to reconfigure the Middle East via regime change. How else can we explain U.S. hard-liners' adamant opposition to an interim deal that, by all accounts, has stalled Iran's nuclear program for the first time in a decade and allowed international inspectors daily access to check on Iran's nuclear facilities? How else to explain the shrillness that greets mere letter-writing to Iran's leader at a time when the nuclear deadline nears and the Middle East goes up in flames?
U.S. hawks are pulling no punches, because they have no more punches to pull. They recognize well enough that if a nuclear deal is cemented in the weeks ahead, their push for war is close to being all for naught.
That doesn't mean they won't try to spoil an agreement. Two weeks ago, Republicans swept to majorities in both houses of Congress during the mid-terms, giving U.S. hard-liners a pedestal on which to preempt a nuclear deal. Already, some members of Congress have designs on scurrying any agreement reached between the U.S. and Iran -- either by preventing the president from implementing a deal or by imposing new sanctions on Iran.
However, if the White House has the wherewithal to withstand Republican-led attacks on a nuclear deal, U.S. hawks will be without any further means to advance us towards war against Iran. A nuclear agreement will take hold; both sides will adhere to their reciprocal obligations; and the world will be free of both renewed conflict and a new nuclear-weapons power.
President Obama's legacy will then be defined not merely as bringing to a close two wars inherited from his predecessor, but as spelling the end of the war that never was. That will be -- in the great scheme of things -- his singular triumph in office. It will also be the last throw of cold-water on war plans a decade-in-the-making.