What’s less clear is the role that Congress sees itself playing to advance this objective.
Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has testified to Congress that, in the Pentagon’s view, the Iranian regime is a “rational actor” and that the current U.S. approach of international sanctions and tough negotiations “is the most prudent.” He is backed up in this view by virtually all of America’s national security leaders. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and his predecessor Robert Gates have both made this case. Gen. Michael Hayden, the Bush administration’s intelligence chief, has also stated that the prior administration’s policy review on the subject concluded that the notion of ending Iran’s nuclear program with military strikes was not at all realistic. In his view, too, a negotiated solution, backed up by international pressure, was our best bet.
Our current intelligence leaders, meanwhile, believe we have ample time for negotiations. In January, Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, testified to Congress that while U.S. officials believe Iran is preserving its options, there is no evidence that they are making a concerted push to build a nuclear weapon. Gen. David Petraeus, the director of the CIA, has echoed that view.
For their part, the American people also support a diplomatic approach to dealing with Iran. While deeply distrustful of the theocratic regime and not ruling out the possibility of military action, multiple polls have shown that the public sees war as a last resort — only in the event that all other diplomatic efforts fail. It’s also worth noting that no public poll has explored how the public would respond to the Pentagon view that “military strikes” would likely be ineffectual and that only a ground invasion could definitively end Iran’s nuclear program.
Under these circumstances, it’s remarkable that some in Congress have pushed legislation that would make a negotiated solution harder to achieve.
While many in Congress see their role as applying pressure on the Obama administration to maintain a strong negotiating position, others seek to undermine American efforts at political dialogue with Iran by reducing the administration’s negotiating flexibility. Yet for the administration to extract concessions from Iran on its nuclear program, it is exactly this type of flexibility that it needs.
And if diplomacy fails, then what? Ill-advised military action would become a greater possibility, yet it would be unlikely to yield the results that the American people want — no Iranian nuclear weapon.
Preventing Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons is a top national security priority and we have good reason to be very cautious in dealing with the Islamic republic. Talks have broken down before and Iran has violated its commitments to the International Atomic Energy Agency. There are decades of mistrust and ill will to work through, and a constructive solution is by no means guaranteed.
Yet at the same time, it is a core principle of effective negotiation that in order to get to “yes,” both parties typically need to be prepared to make compromises that advance their overall goals and interests. While some may choose to delude themselves that Iran can simply be made to “buckle under” without any reciprocity by us, that is not a model that is likely to yield concrete results, though it may move us closer to war.
The way forward in the near term should therefore be one of negotiating modest, step-by-step, and fully verifiable concessions and agreements. The United States and the other powers at the negotiating table need to be prepared to give some ground in order to make progress toward the outcome we want.
And the contours of a confidence building deal can clearly be seen. For our negotiators, ending Iran’s enrichment of uranium up to the 20 percent level and dealing with its stockpile of this material while also gaining unlimited and vigorous on-site inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities is the top priority. For Iran, a relaxing of sanctions or a delay in the upcoming European Union oil embargo is the top goal.
The negotiators made progress on these fronts at the just-completed discussions in Baghdad. With a third round of negotiations set for June 18 to 19 in Moscow, we should support our negotiators as they flesh out this potential deal. We should not tie their hands at the negotiating table by limiting their flexibility to make the compromises needed to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon.
(Joel Rubin, director of policy and government affairs at Ploughshares Fund in Washington, D.C., and a Pittsburgh native, can be reached at email@example.com. His views are his own and not necessarily those of Ploughshares Fund.)