President Obama deserves credit for calling Iranian President Rouhani and beginning to break the ice that has existed between leaders of the two countries for more than 30 years. Both sides seem ready now for direct talks to negotiate a solution to the nuclear standoff.
But a difficult road lies ahead, with many bumps, and obstacles being created by unreasonable demands. Prime Minister Netanyahu is again raising alarms about Iran’s nuclear program, never mentioning Israel’s nuclear weapons. Iran bashers in Congress are preparing new legislation to impose even more sanctions, going in exactly the opposite direction of what is needed now to get Iranian agreement—an offer of sanctions relief, in exchange for limits on uranium enrichment and more robust monitoring of Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Some former officials are asserting that greater transparency is not enough. Gary Samore, former White House nuclear adviser, asserts that the price of easing sanctions for Iran must be dismantling major nuclear facilities, including the almost-completed multi-billion dollar heavy-water reactor at Arak and the underground enrichment site at Fordo. These are demands that go beyond the terms of UN Security Council resolutions, which call for greater cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency and a suspension of enrichment and construction at heavy-water sites, but which make no mention of dismantling nuclear facilities, which in any case are currently under international inspection. Presumably after a negotiated agreement they would be under even tighter monitoring.
The claim that Iran could rush to build a bomb without international detection has no basis in empirical fact. Of course absolute certainty is impossible. Rumsfeld’s ‘unknown unknowns’ can’t be disproved, but neither can they be asserted as realistic threats.
In an ideal world, yes, we might all wish to see Iran without significant nuclear potential, but that is neither feasible not necessary in the near term. The immediate objective is to negotiate an agreement in which Iran accepts limits on its enrichment program and allows sufficiently robust and intrusive monitoring to provide firm assurances that its nuclear program is entirely peaceful in nature.
Such a settlement would be good enough and would allay fears about an Iranian bomb. It might also help to lay the foundation for other steps toward cooperation with Tehran, for example working together (and with Russia) to end the civil war in Syria and making sure that Taliban rebels do not take over in Afghanistan as the U.S. leaves.
All of this may seem a dream at the moment, given the hostility toward Iran of many current and former officials in Washington, but the envisioned process, if it could be realized, would be better for the security of both countries, and for Israel.