In the aftermath of an exhausting reelection campaign, the most urgent decision facing the president is how to stop Iran from pursuing a military nuclear program. Presidents of both parties have long declared that “no option is off the table” in securing this goal. In the third presidential debate, the candidates agreed that this was a matter of the American national interest, even as they described the objective alternately as preventing an Iranian “nuclear weapon” or “breakout capacity” (President Obama), or a “nuclear-capable Iran” (Mitt Romney). As Iran continues to elaborate its enrichment capacity and move it underground, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced a spring deadline for counteraction. In this fraught environment, what operational meaning should be given to America’s declared objectives?
The United States and Iran are apparently conducting bilateral negotiations through official or semiofficial emissaries — a departure from the previous procedure of multilateral talks. Negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program do not have an encouraging record. For more than a decade, Iran has stalled, first with the “EU-3” (France, Germany and Britain) and then with the “P5+1” (the members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany). It has alternated hints of flexibility with periods of intransigence, all while expanding, concealing and dispersing its nuclear facilities. If no limit is placed on this process, Iran’s technological progress will dominate events. But at what stage, and in what manner, should Iran be deprived of a military nuclear capability? This has been the essence of the argument over “red lines.”