Negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran are scheduled to begin tomorrow for the first time since January 2011. These talks will offer one of the best opportunities that the current administration has had to begin a diplomatic process that could help end the nuclear stalemate with Iran.
Since discussion about the possibility of these talks first began last month we have heard much talk about a diplomatic "window of opportunity." This phrase made its first appearance at a White House press conference where U.S. President Barack Obama explained: "We still have a window of opportunity where [the standoff over Iran's nuclear program] can still be solved diplomatically." This phrase has since been repeated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, among others.
Yet curiously, almost as quickly as Obama stressed the existence of time for diplomacy, he began to say how limited this period was, saying the window for solving the nuclear issue diplomatically was "shrinking." For her part, Clinton echoed such sentiments recently in Riyadh when she noted that the window of opportunity "will not remain open forever." This notion was further supported by reports from last month that she sent the Iranians what amounted to an ultimatum, warning them that the upcoming negotiations were their last chance to prevent the U.S. from pursuing military options
But Clinton's proclamation on the urgency of the upcoming talks ignores a much more basic and sorely neglected reality: namely, that a widespread view of top military and intelligence officials in the U.S., Europe, and even Israel is that Iran has not decided to pursue a nuclear weapon, although they are leaving the door open for a future decision to do so.
As the amount of time available for diplomacy is directly connected to a future decision by Iran to pursue a nuclear weapon, the U.S. is not completely powerless over how long this window of opportunity stays open. One of the primary reasons that Iran would pursue a nuclear weapon is to create a deterrence option against a future U.S. or NATO attack. Having witnessed the fall of Saddam Hussein and Col. Muammar Gaddafi, while nuclear-armed North Korea remains largely unthreatened despite its constant provocations, Iran has learned how important it is have a nuclear deterrence to protect against western intervention. By ending the unhelpful loose talk of war, and preventing a precipitous military strike by Israel, the U.S. can limit Iran's threat perception vis a vis the U.S. and decrease the likelihood that Tehran will decide to change course and make the move to build a nuclear weapon.
While lowering the rhetoric and refraining from military strikes may decrease the likelihood of Iran deciding to pursue nuclear weapons, the opposite is also true. If the U.S. continues to engage in heated rhetoric or eventually decides to launch military strikes, it is likely that this will push Iran to begin the process of building a nuclear weapon in earnest. Recently Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and former Director General of the IAEA Mohamed ElBaradei both separately warned that a U.S. or Israeli attack would only ensure that Iran made the decision to sprint for a nuclear weapon.
While the U.S. has set its red line at Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon -- rather than the Israeli red line of a nuclear weapons capability -- the amount of time available for diplomacy is actually much longer than Obama and Clinton's comments suggest. As such, the window of opportunity that the Obama administration has described should anyway on its own terms remain open up until Iran makes the decision to pursue a nuclear weapon. And if or when they do make that decision, Iran is still believed to be a year away from the ability to produce a nuclear weapon and one to two additional years away from building delivery vehicle for such a weapon.
While Obama's statement that the window of opportunity for diplomacy was closing plausibly refers only to his belief that time is running out for diplomacy before military options are pursued, such statements obscure the fact that diplomacy's utility will not cease after the upcoming talks. Even if Iran decides to build a nuclear weapon and crosses the U.S. red line, there is no military solution. Military strikes can only slow Iran's nuclear program. In the aftermath of U.S. military strikes diplomacy would still be required to prevent Iran from rebuilding its program, throwing out IAEA inspectors, and withdrawing from the NPT.
Furthermore, if Iran actually did acquire a nuclear weapon, diplomacy would still be a major tool in the U.S.'s toolbox. The U.S.'s recent diplomatic efforts with North Korea, which however imperfect led to an agreement to allow IAEA inspectors into the country and to suspend enrichment activities, have demonstrated diplomacy's importance for trying to limit and roll back the nuclear program of a country that already possesses nuclear weapons. Thus, a "diplomatic window of opportunity" is an unfortunate metaphor as it suggests that there is only a limited period of time during which diplomacy can be used, when in reality there is no expiration date. Given that: (1) Iran has not definitively decided to pursue a nuclear weapon; (2) the U.S. can help prevent Iran from opting to pursue a weapon through refraining from threats and military options; (3) Iran would still be at least a year away from building a nuclear weapon should it decide to acquire one; and (4) that once they crossed the U.S.'s nuclear red line diplomacy would still need to be a major part of U.S.'s strategy -- it would seem that the window period for negotiations is not limited or shrinking at all (and in fact, it is a misleading way to frame our current standoff with Iran).
In reality, the only shrinking window is the political one. The U.S. is in an election season and many Republicans believe Obama is vulnerable to assertions of weakness on Iran and of being insufficiently supportive of Israel. With November fast approaching, Obama may be seen to only have a quick political opportunity to negotiate a deal with Iran before attacks by his political opponents begin to harm his reelection prospects.
Additionally, Israel is unlikely to sit idly by, waiting for the U.S. to finish an extended engagement with Iran. The longer negotiations go on the more political pressure Netanyahu is likely to place on Obama through his allies in the U.S. and his own bully pulpit. During this time we might expect to see an increase in Israeli threats to use military strikes against Iran. At some point Netanyahu's patience with Obama's diplomatic efforts may well run out and lead to him to consider a possible Israeli military strike against Iran, with or without U.S. approval.
But despite the political environment diplomacy actually has a much longer shelf life than is currently being acknowledged, and for the first time in a long time there is reason for cautious optimism that some diplomatic progress may finally be achievable.
Since last month's AIPAC conference, where Obama successfully pushed back against immense political pressure and called for ending the "loose talk" of war, we have seen a marked change in tone and a shift away from military options. Obama's words were even noticed in Iran, where Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei offered moderate but extremely rare public praise for the American leader. This was followed by a public reiteration of his fatwa that "Islam is opposed to nuclear weapons."
Given the opportunity that this weekend's nuclear talks present for the U.S. it would be shortsighted for the Obama administration to succumb to the political pressures that would continue to speak the language of unrealistic timelines on diplomacy. Rather, the U.S. should see this as a moment to re-double on a good faith diplomatic push lest the real window of opportunity shut irreversibly.
Loren White is a researcher for the New America Foundation's Middle East Task Force