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:

1) The Iranian concessions that are being contemplated are pretty valuable. For Iran to halt 20-percent enrichment and surrender its existing 20-percent-enriched uranium would mean it would no longer have any uranium that's even remotely near weapons-grade level (around 90 percent). And, though the Fordow plant wouldn't be immediately dismantled, it would halt production. All of this would amount to a big step toward the essential goal of P5+1: Iran confines all future enrichment to the sub-5-percent level that is needed for nuclear energy and submits to intrusive monitoring that ensures as much. In short, Iran would be, verifiably, far, far away from a bomb.

2) Sanctions relief is cheap. Do you have any idea how many sanctions we've imposed on Iran over the past two decades? Check out this list (but make sure your scrolling muscles are in shape first). And hey, we don't even have to tap that reservoir of sanctions, because those are just the US sanctions--the acts of Congress and executive orders! There's also UN sanctions and EU sanctions. And one EU sanction--the embargo on Iranian oil that's scheduled to take effect in July--is tailor made for this occasion. The sanctions "relief" could just assume the form of delaying the onset of the embargo by a few months. Then if Iran didn't deliver on its commitments, the embargo would kick in automatically; enduring relief from the embargo would require additional EU action, contingent on demonstrated Iranian compliance. (This would in that sense be sanctions "relief" in which the default is set to "distrust".)

Look, if we can get a positive outcome from these talks without any sanctions relief, fine. But if the talks fail when a little sanctions relief would have saved them, that's like Bill Gates letting the world fall apart because saving it would have cost $10,000. We can afford to dole out some sanctions relief for incremental Iranian concessions and still have plenty of painful sanctions in reserve.

I have two predictions about this round of talks:

(1) There's no way they'll deliver what Jeffrey Goldberg seems to want: some sort of quasi-comprehensive package that delivers roughly everything on the P5+1's wish list and lets us break out the champagne. The most you can hope for is an incremental deal that pushes Iran further away from having a bomb and points clearly toward further talks. (The least that will qualify as non-bad news is a commitment to meet again soon, sans incremental deal.)

(2) If we get an incremental deal--any incremental deal that's gettable--it will be denounced as naïve, dangerous, Munichesque, and so on by neocons and other assorted hawks: Bill Kristol, Jennifer Rubin, John McCain, Joe Lieberman, Lindsey Graham, etc. And nothing does more to ease my Iran-related anxiety than the sound of those people freaking out.