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Keeping door open to an Iran deal

Published November 14. 2013 4:00AM

Reaching an agreement with Iran that truly stops its ambitions to build a nuclear arsenal, and is not just a delaying tactic that allows it to clandestinely continue, will be challenging. Yet the difficulty of the task and fears of Iran cheating do not justify abandoning the effort.

Secretary of State John Kerry reports substantial progress in the multinational talks held recently in Geneva with the goal of restraining Iran's nuclear program. However, critics stateside were quick to dismiss the very notion that negotiators can find a satisfactory diplomatic path to keep Iran nuclear free.

Getting Iran to negotiate at all on the topic is one of the foreign policy successes of the Obama administration. The United States has led the way in achieving international agreements to place extremely tough economic sanctions on Iran, with world leaders recognizing that allowing a nuclear-armed Iran would be highly destabilizing in the Middle East and a major global threat.

The world cannot allow it. President Obama has said he will not.

Iran's leaders are now talking only because of the damage the sanctions are doing to that nation's economy and the unrest it is generating among the people.

Military action, the only option left if negotiations fail, could potentially have far-reaching and unforeseen consequences, among them the potential for a conflict that spills over borders, disruption of global oil supplies, sharp energy price increases, and a damaged global economy.

There are no assurances a military attack would achieve its goal. With Iran's hardened targets, many experts say its plans to produce a bomb could be delayed, but likely not derailed. Very likely, an attack would unite the Iranian populace behind its leaders.

This does not mean the United States and its allies should be ready to accept any deal, avoiding the military option by allowing Iran to erect a façade of cooperation while continuing on its nuclear course. But neither should the Obama administration and international community accept the position of some that no verifiable agreement can be reached short of an unconditional surrender by Iran on the issue.

Reportedly on the table is a deal that would allow Iran to enrich uranium to the non-weapon level of 3.5 percent as part of an interim agreement, with additional constraints and verification procedures to prevent cheating. The intent is to freeze Iran's nuclear efforts for several months, giving diplomats a window to negotiate a more comprehensive accord before a point of no return is reached. If such an accord cannot be achieved, the full weight of sanctions would resume and a military attack could well follow. Time is of the essence. The talks cannot drag on.

The New York Times reports that the Geneva talks failed to reach a tentative accord because Western negotiators were - rightfully - not willing to accept Iran's demand for a formal recognition that it has a sovereign right to enrich uranium.

Instead, Western diplomats want to limit any enrichment - reportedly for a nuclear energy program - and tie it to the negotiated agreement.

Talks will continue among lower-level diplomats.

No one trusts Iran, particularly not its Arab neighbors and certainly not Israel, and they understandably have serious reservations about an agreement that could provide cover for Iran's mullahs to obtain nuclear warheads. In this case the applicable imperative for any agreement must be "don't trust and verify."

Unfortunately, the Obama administration's missteps, on foreign and domestic policy, will invite skepticism. It stumbled into a policy on addressing the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict. Its non-response to the Egyptian military coup bred confusion. Meanwhile, the rollout of its signature domestic policy achievement, a universal health coverage plan, could not have gone worse.

But skeptics should judge any deal reached with Iran on its merits or lack thereof. This matter is too serious to subject to the typical partisan politics and pot shots.

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