National Opinions

Like Reagan, Obama must stare down hardliners, save nuclear talks

Students held placards to show support for Iran's nuclear program in a gathering in front of the headquarters of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization in Tehran on Nov. 23.
Students held placards to show support for Iran's nuclear program in a gathering in front of the headquarters of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization in Tehran on Nov. 23. AP

By Jim Walsh

Last week's announcement that negotiations with Iran over its nuclear power program will be extended is both good and bad news. The good news is that the interim agreement, or Joint Plan of Action, will continue in force. It has been the single most effective tool for reducing the danger of an Iranian nuclear weapon.

The bad news is that, despite substantial progress, the negotiators failed to seal the deal when they had the opportunity and now risk the whole process unraveling. Already hardliners of Congress are vowing to vote on new sanctions that would undermine, if not mortally wound, the delicate negotiations.

Congress has a laundry list of demands, insisting that only a perfect and one-sided deal will do. In Tehran, hardline officials, like their Washington counterparts, have staked out maximal positions that are similarly unrealistic.

Ronald Reagan faced his own hardliners during nuclear negotiations, but stared them down. He noted that "'Compromise' was a dirty word to them ... They wanted all or nothing, and they wanted it all at once. If you don't get it all, some said, don't take anything."

Reagan wisely ignored their objections.

If Congress moves to punish Iran with new sanctions, Iran will respond by dramatically expanding its nuclear program. Neither side will achieve its objective, but both will impose costs on the other.

How do we know this? History. In 2005, nuclear negotiations with Iran collapsed when the Bush administration insisted that Iran capitulate and scrap its inventory of 164 centrifuges. Washington wanted the perfect deal or no deal at all, so it got no deal.

With the end of negotiations, Iran went from 164 centrifuges to 19,000. It also enriched uranium to 20 percent — a top concern of those worried about the proliferation of dangerous nuclear material. Iran faced stiff economic sanctions. But in the end, both sides lost.

Fast forward to 2014. If the negotiating parties dig in and are unable to compromise, what happens next?

■ Iran's nuclear program dramatically expands. Iranian officials have already stated publicly that if the negotiations fail, they will resume producing 20 percent enriched uranium. Ending 20 percent enrichment was the single most important result of the interim nuclear deal reached last year. In addition, Iran would fire up its 1,000 never before operated advanced centrifuges. There would be no limits on Iranian enrichment, neither on the level of purity (i.e. closer to weapons level) or on the amount of material produced — both of which are capped today under the interim agreement.

■ Breakout time is dramatically shortened. Breakout time refers to how long it would take a country to produce one bomb's worth of nuclear material. In the U.S., the issue of breakout has dominated discussion of the nuclear negotiations. The irony is that absent an agreement, the breakout problem would be far worse.

■ Iran's nuclear program gets "darker." Thanks to the interim nuclear agreement currently in force, the International Atomic Energy Agency has daily access to Iran's enrichment plants and better access to its other facilities. It doubled the number of inspectors on the ground. That all goes away if negotiations collapse. When the inspectors are sent home, we will know far less about what is happening on the ground in Iran's nuclear program.

■ The U.S. and Israel are put on path to (another) war. As Iran's nuclear program expands and becomes less transparent, there will be increasing calls in the U.S. and Israel for military strikes. It is not axiomatic that war will follow, but there is no doubt the chances increase substantially. A new conflict involving the U.S. and/or Israel would introduce new danger and unpredictability into a region already convulsing in violence. What's more, a military strike against Iran would likely precipitate the very thing it is supposed to prevent: an Iranian decision to build nuclear weapons.

■ Pro-nuclear weapons faction in Iran are strengthened. War or no war, the political effect in Iran of a failed negotiation will be to strengthen Tehran's hardliners, including those who harbor nuclear weapons ambitions. Failed negotiations will wound the centrist Rouhani and open the opportunity for hardliners. Ironically, the Iranian bomb advocates best allies are hardliners in Congress.

The stakes are high, and the deadline is here. It is time for President Barack Obama, like Reagan, to stare down his hardliners and make the tough choices that will secure an agreement and prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Failure to do so will make an already dangerous world even more dangerous for decades to come.

Jim Walsh is an expert in international security and a research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Security Studies Program.

Tribune News Service