At the end of March, negotiations over Iran's nuclear program will barrel headlong into their latest deadline. If everyone involved becomes unnaturally agreeable by then, Iran and the P5+1 (the United States, Britain, France, Russia, and China plus Germany) will sign on to a political framework outlining the major elements of a deal. A final settlement with all the technical details would then be hashed out by the end of June.
Nobody is sure what will happen if an agreement isn't reached by March 31. Perhaps the deadline will be extended a third time, or maybe the differing parties will abandon talks altogether.
The ongoing ordeal has lately dominated the US-Israel relationship, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu has made no secret of his serious misgivings about a process that he fears will imperil the security of the world's only Jewish state. This has increased tensions between the two allies — and like any relationship, when tensions are high, everything can suddenly seem enormously dramatic.
In this case, rhetoric surrounding the discussions took on a particularly sharp tone after Republican House Speaker John Boehner invited Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress. The invitation and its acceptance surprised the Obama administration, and a sizeable chunk of the Washington political-media complex flew off the handle in response, working itself into an epic tizzy.
Details on who knew what when and notified whom of what was happening when and so forth are a bit murky. But suffice it to say that DC's hyper-charged partisanship turned the furor into a mass tantrum of sorts, replete with all the off-record insults, baseless allegations, and newspaper retractions that have illustrated the sometimes contentious elements of the US-Israel relationship these last several years.
By the time Netanyahu landed in the US, a number of Democrats had vowed to boycott the prime minister's speech, charging that he had conspired with Boehner to make Obama look bad and turn the bilateral relationship into a divisive political issue.
This came to a head on Monday, a day before Netanyahu's speech to Congress, when he spoke at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), where attendees — a record 16,000 this year — can kibitz, kvetch, and bend the ear of any member of Congress within shouting distance about any one of a number of issues concerning Israel.
AIPAC is a heavyweight interest group, comprised mainly of American Jews who are interested in ensuring US support for Israel. Despite some protestations to the contrary, AIPAC is bipartisan and seems pretty determined to stay that way.
This year's conference turned into a kind of a Christmas Eve for DC's many pundits, politicos, and policy wonks, bringing weeks of drama to an almost unendurable pitch of anticipation before everyone had to go off to bed, waiting to see what tomorrow would hold for Bibi's Big Congressional Speech. The highlights were remarks delivered by US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, US National Security Advisor Susan Rice, and Netanyahu himself.
Reaching a satisfactory conclusion about Iran's nuclear program isn't really a problem of logic and reason. Just because one party makes good points doesn't mean the other side's arguments somehow disappear.
Ambassador Power waxed eloquently about the enduring nature of US-Israeli ties, her experiences covering genocide firsthand in the Balkans, and America's commitment to the fight against anti-Semitism.
"Israel's security and the U.S.-Israel partnership transcends politics, and it always will," she declared, eliciting raucous applause. "There will never be a sunset on America's commitment to Israel's security — never," she added.
Although Power's line about Israeli settlement activity in Palestinian territory damaging the prospect for peace got a pretty weak reception, that message was overwhelmed by her affirmation of the close relationship between the two countries.
Her remarks were soon followed by Netanyahu's speech. Though the prime minister gushed to the crowd that the US-Israel alliance was stronger than ever, he signaled the substance of the address to Congress that he would deliver the next day.
"The purpose of my address to Congress tomorrow is to speak up about a potential deal with Iran that could threaten the survival of Israel," he said. "Israel and the United States agree that Iran should not have nuclear weapons, but we disagree on the best way to prevent Iran from developing those weapons."
Though Netanyahu also spoke fulsomely of the partnership between the two countries, he spoke about the latest round of hurt feelings directly.
"My speech is not intended to show any disrespect to President Obama or the esteemed office that he holds," he said. "My speech is also not intended to inject Israel into the American partisan debate. An important reason why our alliance has grown stronger decade after decade is that it has been championed by both parties, and so it must remain."
Susan Rice spoke at the conference later that evening. In a speech speckled with Hebrew, personal recollections of her visits to Israel, and other declarations of enduring friendship, she expressed her own strong convictions about the close bilateral relationship, etc., etc., before getting to the nuclear negotiations.
Rice laid out the administration's five key points on the talks.
First, she said that the administration has halted Iran's nuclear program and even rolled it back in some areas. Moreover, it is not just taking Iran's word for it. The US has been super tough, she said, inspecting the heck out of Iranian facilities via the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to be certain that the country isn't up to any shenanigans.
Next, Rice told the audience that the international community is continuing to put the squeeze on Iran, having basically cut it off from the international finance system.
"Iran's economy remains isolated from the international finance system and cut off from the vast majority of its foreign currency reserves," she said. "Iran's oil exports have dropped almost 60 percent since 2012. The rial has depreciated by more than 50 percent. And Iran's overall GDP has shrunk by almost 10 percent. All told, sanctions have deprived Iran of more than $200 billion in lost oil revenues."
The third point is that the US will demand that every pathway for Iran to get enough fissionable material (either weapons-grade uranium or plutonium) will be cut off verifiably. According to Rice, experts estimate that if Iran told everyone to go to hell and went full speed ahead on making a bomb, it would take two to three months to get enough material together for a weapon. This length of time — called the "breakout" period — is a key metric in these negotiations. The US expects that the suite of measures that it wants Iran to agree to will extend its breakout span to a year.
Rice discussed broader aspects of the negotiation process as a whole, which touched on a central idea: be realistic and don't allow the pursuit of an impossible deal blind you to the chance of getting a very good deal. While a lot of folks would be happier if Iran gave up nuclear everything forever, there's never going to be a consensus agreement to forbid Iran from having any sort of nuclear generation capability forever.
Basically, Iran has said that it won't accept any deal that forbids it from building a nuclear weapon indefinitely. The US is pushing for an agreement that would last at least a decade. The plan is currently that if Iran plays nice for a decade, then a new round of negotiations would determine whether Iran can develop a normal nuclear program. In other words, any deal would place Iran on nuclear probation.
While Rice assured the audience that "a bad deal is worse than no deal" — a line echoed during Netanyahu's congressional speech on Tuesday — how negotiations fall apart makes all the difference. If the world blames the US for being the completely unreasonable jerks responsible for their failure, then it will be impossible to get the international community on board for more sanctions. But if Iran's government is deemed to be at fault, then it would be easier to get the international community on board with putting more of the squeeze on Tehran.
Rice's final point was that keeping Iran's nuclear program under the microscope is actually a pretty good deal,and probably going to keep Iran from getting nukes longer than any other approach will manage.
While the audience at AIPAC was decidedly lukewarm about some of Rice's lines and wildly enthusiastic about her reference to an arrangement that she adamantly says isn't in the cards at all (that Iran forego its domestic enrichment capacity entirely), her points aren't without merit and may well represent the best possible deal that can be achieved under the circumstances.
When Netanyahu spoke before Congress the following day, he made two main arguments about the deal under negotiation that merit mention. The first is that a year of breakout time is practically nothing. Iran could do something sneaky and get a program in motion when nobody's looking, so by the time the international community noticed Iran might be just months or weeks away from having a nuke. Or heck, even if they did tell the IAEA to go to hell, does anyone think that the world could get its act together to respond effectively enough to compel Iran to back off? That is, any measure short of war?
The second argument is that all Iran really needs to do to get the bomb is just behave itself for 10 years before the deal's restrictions will be lifted, allowing it to do as it pleases.
Bibi suggested a set of conditions for lifting the sanctions on Iran's weapons program that he would be comfortable with.
"The world should demand that Iran do three things," he said. "First, stop its aggression against its neighbors in the Middle East. Second, stop supporting terrorism around the world. And third, stop threatening to annihilate my country, Israel."
While this might seem sensible, what it would take for Iran to comply with those terms to the satisfaction of skeptics in Israel and the US short of regime change, or at least a complete psychotic break on the part of Iran's leaders?
The long and short of it all is that countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is a phenomenally difficult job. If you can get away from the more excitable coverage focusing on Netanyahu's flamboyant turns of phrase, the differing views on the talks both make good points.
But reaching a satisfactory conclusion about Iran's nuclear program isn't really a problem of logic and reason. Just because one party makes good points doesn't mean the other side's arguments somehow disappear. The underlying issue is that the pursuit of WMD really comes down to national will. Sufficiently strong national will cannot be bought, bartered, or badgered into submission.
Any sufficiently determined country can develop WMD, even nukes, if given enough time and money — see North Korea. Granted, it may take unimaginable amounts of determination to see a program through to its end, but at the furthest extremes, if a nation believes that WMD are somehow a matter of survival or existential issue, then how could they negotiate that away?
So while the US, Israeli, and Iranian governments are throwing a lot of imperatives and absolutes around these days, someone is going to be proven wrong in the long term. Perhaps very, very wrong. And finding out who is so very wrong and what they're so very wrong about could become a very ugly thing, indeed.
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan