Pondering the looming specter of a nuclear-armed Iran, some Americans are deeply worried that we won't reach a deal to block that possibility. Some people have a different fear: that we will.
This second group is enthusiastically in favor of legislation to impose new and more punitive sanctions on the Tehran regime if the ongoing talks fail to yield an agreement by July.
The bill's purpose is to "strengthen the United States' hand in negotiations in order to reach a peaceful, diplomatic solution to Iran's nuclear ambitions," claims the Bipartisan Policy Center. But it also serves the purposes of those people who run screaming from any realistic agreement with Iran.
One of them, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is coming to Washington for a joint session of Congress, where he can expect a warm reception from both parties—though not from President Barack Obama, who has no plans to meet with him.
Netanyahu insists any deal must force Iran to not just hobble its program, but dismantle it, and he knows Obama is willing to settle for something less. So an agreement that Iran will accept is one Netanyahu and his allies in Congress will reject.
Obama has good reason to promise to veto the sanctions bill if it passes. Josh Rogin and Eli Lake of Bloomberg View report that Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency, is "telling U.S. officials and lawmakers that a new Iran sanctions bill in the U.S. Congress would tank the Iran nuclear negotiations."
The critics have not been happy since the six nations negotiating with Iran (the United States, France, Britain, Russia, China and Germany) reached an interim deal over a year ago, and they are not happy that the talks have been extended after failing to settle all the issues.
But that framework is a big improvement on what went before. Iran had to agree to a number of real limits—freezing the number of its centrifuges, neutralizing its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium, which can readily be converted to weapons-grade material, and granting greater access to international inspectors.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, which does inspections on a daily basis, affirms that the regime has complied with its obligations under the interim accord.
Obama overstated his case in the State of the Union address when he declared that "we've halted the progress of its nuclear program and reduced its stockpile of nuclear material." Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, says it's more accurate to say we have "halted the most worrisome projects that Iran has."
There's no guarantee the talks will ultimately produce an agreement that will make it sufficiently difficult and time-consuming for Iran to build a bomb. The Iranians know that U.S. enemies that lack nuclear weapons (like Iraq) are more likely to be invaded than countries that have them (like North Korea). They are not likely to forfeit such a useful capability without strong reasons.
One is escaping the economic sanctions imposed by the world for its nuclear activities. Another is avoiding a preemptive strike by the U.S. or Israel.
But sanctions have a poor record of diverting nations from policies they see as vital for survival. A bombing raid would only delay the nuclear weapons quest, while giving the regime more reason than ever to persist in it.
Iran may be prepared to accept a deal that would greatly lengthen the time it would need to "break out" to acquire nuclear weapons. But it clearly isn't going to completely surrender that option forever.
Hawks have much invested in the belief that force is the only useful tool in countering adversaries and that Obama is a naive appeaser. It would be a huge embarrassment if diplomatic pressure and hard bargaining by the administration produced a deal putting nukes beyond Iran's reach indefinitely.
Such an accord would also shelve the option of attacking Iran, a longtime dream of neoconservatives. Before the Iraq invasion, a British official quipped, "Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran." Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton insists an attack by Israel "is the only way to avoid Tehran's otherwise inevitable march to nuclear weapons."
In truth, there is a plausible deal that would stop that march—and give us plenty of time to act should it ever resume. If what the critics really want to do is close the road to a peaceful outcome, though, they've got the right idea.