As I write this, Iranian and American negotiators, along with the other members of the P5+1, are meeting in Geneva to discuss the nuclear dispute that has divided Iran and these nations for many years. The core issues are: 1) how much of Iran's present nuclear capacity might it be willing to give up, 2) the scope of international inspections of Iran's remaining facilities, and 3) the speed with which the United States and others will lift the economic sanctions they have imposed on Iran.
Colin Kahl and Alireza Nader have already posted an excellent guide to the negotiations, and they correctly note that pursuing the pipe dream of "zero enrichment" will merely ensure that this latest round of negotiations fails. If Obama and his team want success, therefore, they are going to have to ignore the various voices that are now recommending either unrealistic demands or ill-advised negotiating strategies.
Obama should ignore these voices because their approach has been a complete failure for over a decade. Iran had zero centrifuges in operation in 2000 and only a handful in 2005, the last time the Iranians offered to freeze their program. The United States rejected all these previous offers, and now Iran has some 19,000 centrifuges, a plutonium program, and a larger stockpile of uranium that could in theory be enriched to make a bomb if Iran ever decides it wants one. In short, the hard-line position of issuing threats, imposing sanctions, and insisting that Iran give in to all our demands has backfired and put us in a worse position today.
Here's a quick guide to some of the voices whose advice should be ignored.
First and foremost, the government of Israel, which continues to insist that Iran be forced to dismantle its entire enrichment program. I can understand why nuclear-armed Israel would like this, but it's not going to happen unless and until the entire region becomes a nuclear-weapons-free zone. Letting Tel Aviv dictate our negotiating position guarantees failure.
Second, the bipartisan group of senators issued one of those helpful "open letters" to Obama last week. In addition to repeating the usual bromides about "a convincing threat of the use of force" and describing Iran's "nuclear weapons program" (which the U.S. intelligence community does not think exists), the senators told Obama to seek full suspension of Iranian enrichment in exchange for a suspension of new U.S. sanctions. In other words: Iran should give us the most important thing on our wish list, in exchange for our generously agreeing to leave the existing sanctions in place but not add any new ones. This idea is not serious, which is hardly surprising given that it came from Capitol Hill.
Third, lobbying groups like JINSA and United Against Nuclear Iran. The former group issued a new policy brief last week, outlining the usual set of U.S. demands and recommending that the United States increase pressure on Iran in order to get a deal. In their view, the best way to get a successful deal is to impose more sanctions on Iran and to threaten U.S. or Israeli military strikes. (Right: Military threats are an ideal way to convince a country that it has no need for even a latent nuclear deterrent.) Oddly, the report acknowledges that Iran has responded to the past decade of U.S. pressure with its own strategy of "counter-pressure": assembling more centrifuges, accumulating larger stockpiles of low-enriched uranium, making nuclear fuel at the Arak reactor, etc. Yet even though the approach they recommend has backfired for a decade, we should just keep doing it. And as I've noted in other contexts, a one-sided deal that you impose on an adversary by brute coercion isn't likely to endure; it just gives the other side reason to reverse the results once conditions are more favorable. To succeed, any deal with Iran has got to give both sides something positive, instead of leaving one side thinking it got screwed.
As for United Against Nuclear Iran, this is the group of diplomatic geniuses that was pressuring hotels in New York not to rent rooms to Iranian President Hasan Rouhani during his recent visit. Its new president, Gary Samore (who is also a colleague of mine at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs), wasn't in charge of the group when that little flap occurred, but he seems to be on board with the same coercive approach that has repeatedly failed in the past. He told Time magazine last week that "[the Iranians] want to have a nuclear weapons capability" and that our only tool is "coercive pressure." He added that any deal we reach will not end the matter, but will only be a way to "buy time, in the hopes that the next Iranian government has a different calculation of their national interest" (my emphasis). For United Against Nuclear Iran, it seems, the real goal is still regime change.
In short, the hard-liners' approach to Iran still insists on maximal objectives on our end and zero carrots for Iran. It still sees sanctions and active threats of military force as the only way to convince Iran to abandon most if not all of its nuclear energy program. This approach is also deeply hypocritical, given America's own nuclear arsenal and our propensity to use force with far greater frequency than the Islamic Republic has. And worst of all, it has been a complete failure so far: Iran has a far more extensive nuclear program than it did when the United States started trying to coerce it into complete capitulation. You would think that America's foreign-policy establishment would look back at the past decade or more and at least consider a different approach, but that seems to be a very hard thing for us to do.