As the United States goes into talks Thursday with Iran over its nuclear program, it may have to face the fact that even the best outcome of any negotiation will probably leave it with far less than it initially hoped to achieve.
Years of pressuring the regime to stop enriching uranium have failed, largely because of Russian and Chinese reluctance to sign off on tougher sanctions. So has the threat of military strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities. The consequences of military action would be highly unpredictable and would likely include igniting a wider conflict. The result might be only to cement the power of hard-liners in the Iranian government while failing to guarantee the destruction of the country's nuclear weapons potential.
Realistically, any outcome of the talks, short of war, will have to be one that both the U.S. and Iran can live with. That probably means the U.S. will need to give up its insistence on a total halt to Iran's uranium enrichment program, which is already far advanced at its Natanz nuclear facility and may also be proceeding at other secret sites, like the one revealed last week near the Iranian holy city of Qom. In return, the Iranians would have to agree to the kind of intrusive inspection and monitoring regime carried out by the International Atomic Energy Agency in Saddam Hussein's Iraq to assure the U.S. and its allies that Iran is not covertly developing a nuclear weapon.
As an opening gambit, such negotiations might begin by the U.S. pledging to freeze its efforts to secure punishing sanctions against Iran; Iran, in turn, would pledge a freeze on constructing additional centrifuges at Natanz. Neither side would give up much under this "freeze for freeze" formula: The U.S. hasn't been able to toughen sanctions for years, and the Iranians already have 50,000 centrifuges spinning at Natanz. But it would offer both sides a face-saving way to claim initial success while negotiations on more difficult issues proceeded.
Under such a scenario, the U.S. would ultimately offer to cease attempting to interfere with Iran's peaceful nuclear energy program if Iran agreed to disclose all of its nuclear installations and allow unimpeded access to suspected weapons development sites to IAEA inspectors, whose purpose would be to certify that Iran's nuclear power program wasn't a cover for building a bomb. Such an arrangement might even stave off the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran at least until the reform movements in evidence after last June's elections managed to modify Iranian policy from within. Even if it didn't succeed in preventing Iran from building one or two bombs, we would be in a better position to demand Russian and Chinese cooperation in containing the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran. Russia, in particular, could no longer claim that a proposed missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic to shield Western Europe was really aimed at its forces.
There is no certainty, of course, that the present Iranian government would agree to any proposal that limited its ability to develop a covert nuclear weapons capability. A 2007 National Intelligence Estimate predicted that if Iran were going to make a nuke, it probably would do so at a covert facility like the one recently uncovered at Qom, not one subject to international inspection. The Qom revelation is all the more reason the United States' effort should be focused on getting the most stringent inspection regime possible to increase our ability to detect other secret facilities that may exist now or in the future.
Even if such negotiations are successful, they are likely to take time. President Barack Obama has set a year-end deadline for progress in the talks, but it's unlikely an agreement can be struck by that time, even if Iran wants a deal. In the meantime, the U.S. must continue to try to find ways to slow Iran's nuclear progress and put pressure on its business partners, while working with our allies to enhance their security. The world would be a far more dangerous place with a nuclear-armed Iran, and we must do everything in our power to avoid that frightening prospect. But we also have to face the fact that it may be a scenario we are powerless to prevent.