Now the real Iran nuclear debate begins

For months it seemed the discussion surrounding the Vienna talks with Iran was focused on hypothetical ayes and nays in Congress: Will the sanctions bill derail the talks? Will the sanctions bill be the moment the Democrats break with President Obama on foreign policy? What will Hillary Clinton say about the sanctions bill? Will this reinvigorate Bolton 2016? (Okay, not quite)

Once the sanctions bill was declared dead, the Iran story receded into the corner of the inner pages of the New York Times’ International section, where it sadly remains today. It’s unfortunate because the most recent developments are of actual substance, and reveal a lot about American foreign policy today and where the Iran talks are headed.

To be sure, the obstacles Iran laid down at the Vienna talks this week weren’t unexpected. Last week, Iran’s Supreme Leader suggested the country’s revolutionary guard “should mass produce” ballistic missiles. Later on, Iran’s president, the relative moderate Hassan Rouhani, said the Islamic Republic’s “nuclear technology is not up for negotiation.”

So, yes, the fact that the talks this week stumbled on centrifuges will surprise no one. What should be worrying is that 2/3 of the time allotted in the interim agreement for talks have already been used, and an Iranian official is talking about constructing 50,000 centrifuges.

The most lamentable clause in the interim agreement was the one allowing for a six-month extension of said agreement. It was an unwarranted assumption of good will on Iran’s part: I mean, why would a rogue state suffering from debilitating economic sanctions want to disingenuously participate in talks for the sole purpose of winning free sanctions relief?

The Times now says an extension is “likely,” and I would agree, and even say the West must agree to extend the agreement. If it does not, Iran would be able to paint the United States as a negotiations refusenik, and any military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities would receive lukewarm support from Europe at best. If the primary purpose of these talks was to test Iran, walking away from the table will undermine that. The clause should never have been in the interim agreement, but now that it is the West must be seen as the cooperating party.

Over the next six months, the United States must begin to dispel the commonly repeated fiction that we need the agreement as much as Iran does. This, more than anything, emboldens Iran to take an uncompromising negotiating position. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s recent trip to the Gulf is a good start in the long effort of repairing our alliances there, thus strengthening the Western hand against Iran in these talks.

The US should not seek confrontation, but sacrificing the interests of allies in order to avoid the use of hard power–––such as strong sanctions against Russia and airstrikes in Syria–––is not a position that inspires compromise in Iran, which seeks nothing short of regional hegemony, and will be stopped by nothing less than unrelenting resistance from the West and its allies.

I recently attended a lecture by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Being a veteran of a Cold War administration, it’s safe to assume he may know a thing or two about managing nuclear diplomacy. He said in no uncertain terms that nuclear containment isn’t possible in a multipolar world (I should note that this isn’t something Henry Kissinger should have to tell you). If Iran enriches enough uranium for a bomb, a nuclear arms race in the region will begin.

I think President Obama understands this well, and is sincere about stopping Iran from going nuclear. But I fear he believes that foreign policy is a map of unconnected dots. What the US does about Crimea has no effect on China’s calculations in the South China Sea. Our failure to keep our promise in Syria will have no impact on Japan’s willingness to believe the US will come to its side if China invades the Senkaku islands. This is a tragic mistake.

If Iran sees a desperate West, they will happily play to it: delay the nuclear program in exchange for perpetual courting and sanctions relief, which will allow it to continue to fund Bashar Assad’s bloody campaign in Syria. Let’s not fall for it when the next six months are up.

About the Author
Abe Silberstein writes on Israeli politics, Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and American foreign policy in the Middle East. He can be reached at