Fast forward to 2015. Despite a tremendous diplomatic effort, Iran and six world powers failed to reach a comprehensive nuclear agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear capacity in exchange for sanctions relief by their self-imposed November 24 deadline. The foreign ministers from all sides said they had achieved significant progress but needed more time to resolve remaining differences.
In response, many members of Congress in Washington, as well as hard line elements in Tehran said their leaders had conceded too much already and moved to escalate pressure. Over White House and Democratic opposition, Republicans leaders in Congress led by Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. and John McCain, R-Ariz., pressed for a vote to impose additional sanctions on Iran to try to coerce Iran to agree to even more stringent restrictions on its nuclear program. The sanctions bill was approved in January when Republicans took control of both the House and the Senate.
In response, Iran’s leaders decide to begin operating more of their centrifuges, including more advanced and efficient machines. Its stockpiles of enriched uranium grow. Iran begins enriching uranium to higher levels again. Iranian officials say the increased capacity is necessary for ensuring they have the capability to fuel domestic nuclear power plants.
The progress made during the previous year to roll back and freeze key elements of Iran’s nuclear program through the interim nuclear deal between the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and Iran were quickly lost. International inspections at Iran’s major nuclear sites continue, but Iran does not allow the additional inspections needed to guard against a clandestine effort that would have been possible with a comprehensive nuclear deal.
Iran’s nuclear capabilities grow and the time it would take to produce enough weapons-grade nuclear material for nuclear weapons shrinks to mere weeks, or less.
Over the course of the year, the United States’ effort to ratchet up sanctions begins to cut into Iran’s oil exports and international trade even further. It becomes even harder for the Iranian people to afford certain goods. Medications become even scarcer. The global market price of crude oil creeps higher.
Major governments blame Congress for derailing the diplomatic process. Cracks begin to appear in the international sanctions regime as several countries consider defying U.S. sanctions and buying Iranian oil and goods.
Later on, Iran completes its heavy-water reactor project at Arak. Soon Iran will have weapons-usable plutonium it can separate: another path to the bomb.
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Escalation continues. Iran uses illicit networks to continue to obtain materials that allow it to keep building up its nuclear program. Iran’s regional adversaries become concerned as time ticks off of Iran’s nuclear weapons breakout clock. Saudi Arabia increases military spending and announces it will pursue more advanced ballistic missiles.
Concern in Israel grows. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says his country is prepared to conduct a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. But even Israel’s leaders understand that military strikes are not a viable long-term option since they cannot destroy the knowledge Iran has generated from several decades of nuclear activities. And a military strike on Iran’s nuclear sites would likely lead hardliners in Iran to pull out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and openly pursue nuclear weapons in order to try to deter further attacks on Iranian soil.
The exact course of future events is, of course, difficult to predict. But it is clear that in the absence of a comprehensive nuclear agreement—or the further pursuit of such a deal—the risk of escalation is very high. Iran’s nuclear capabilities would be unconstrained, and the risk of a wider conflict in the Middle East would grow.
All of this is avoidable.
The United States, its P5+1 negotiating partners, and Iran have a historic opportunity to reach an agreement that puts the international community on the path to a different future.
In a perfect world, Iran would give up its uranium-enrichment program altogether and purchase nuclear reactor fuel for its civil nuclear energy needs from established, efficient global suppliers. The Arak heavy-water reactor would be replaced by a proliferation-resistant light-water reactor. And the international community would lift sanctions on Iran.
But the perfect should not be allowed to become the enemy of the good. And a good and effective deal is within reach. Achieving that agreement requires flexibility and courage from leaders in Tehran and Washington.
An agreement would block all of Iran’s potential pathways to nuclear weapons and ensure that its peaceful, civilian program remains limited and is intensely monitored. In return, Iran would receive sanctions relief.
A comprehensive nuclear agreement opens a door to very different future. The Iranian nuclear threat is resolved, eliminating another potential conflict in the Middle East. A good deal could open doors for economic development and perhaps cooperation on regional threats.
As policymakers in Washington and other capitals around the world evaluate a comprehensive agreement, or their support for an extension, it is vital to look toward the future.
Walking away from the talks or pushing Iran to leave the table could result in an unmonitored, unlimited Iranian nuclear program. That is a future we cannot afford.