Iran-Related Anxiety Disorders

My Atlantic colleague Jeffrey Goldberg is worried that the current round of nuclear talks with Iran won't work out well. I'm worried about that, too (as I said yesterday). But my worry is roughly the opposite of Goldberg's. Maybe by contrasting the two worries I can define a spectrum of Iran-related anxieties, and then anxiety-prone readers can decide where along that spectrum they feel most comfortable.

Goldberg worries that the talks won't move fast enough--that when they adjourn (presumably on Thursday), Iran won't have made enough in the way of concrete concessions. He points to a New York Times report about what the P5+1 (the permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany) hopes to get out of Iran this week. According to the Times, we want Iran to quit producing 20-percent-enriched uranium, to surrender what 20-percent-enriched uranium it possesses, and then "down the road" dismantle the Fordow processing plant, which is buried in a mountain and so difficult to attack. Goldberg would like the dismantling to begin sooner than "down the road".

His logic: " 'Down the road' is not an expression that would cause the Israeli prime minister, or the defense minister, to call President Obama and tell him that they are taking the military option off the table. It would actually cause them to think -- not that they don't think this already -- that the Baghdad talks are a charade." And, he adds, if Israel thinks this, then it may "take [military] action, which is a very bad idea."

Yes, it would indeed be a bad idea for Israel to unilaterally start a war with Iran, particularly when Iran is nowhere near having a nuclear weapon. Leave aside the international uproar and the prospects for incendiary retaliation; assuming America got involved in the war, as it almost certainly would, this would probably create more anti-Israel sentiment among the war-weary American public than this country has ever seen.

In fact, for Israel to attack Iran anytime soon would be such a bad idea that I don't think Israel will do it. So even if I accepted the premise that American policy should assume whatever form is required to minimize the chances of Bibi Netanyahu's doing something crazy, I wouldn't worry about crazy behavior in this particular case. (Although of course Netanyahu, as always, will for tactical reasons want to look like he's just one bad night's sleep away from bombing Iran.)

My concern is the opposite of Goldberg's--not that we won't demand enough from Iran, but that we'll be willing to surrender too little. If reports out of Baghdad are reliable, P5+1 isn't offering sanctions relief in exchange for Iranian concessions, and Iran is insisting on such relief.

Of course, either or both sides could be bluffing; we'll know more soon. But if it turns out that a refusal to offer any sanctions relief keeps us from securing the concessions we seek, that would be almost as crazy as Netanyahu attacking Iran. There are two reasons:

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Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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