Negotiations between Iran and the “P5+1,” which refers to the five World War II allied powers (US, China, Russia, France, and Britain) and Germany, began with a first round in Geneva on October 15th. This was generally seen as a positive first step in what will ultimately be a difficult task: reaching a solution that satisfies Iran’s desire for sanctions relief and peaceful nuclear energy, while also denying Iran the capability to produce nuclear weapons. E.U. Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton characterized the meeting as “very intensive and very important.” In a positive concluding sign, the two sides released a joint statement for the first time, setting November 7th as the date for the second round of talks.

First, a little background. Iran’s interest in nuclear development began before the revolution of 1979 and continued afterward. Fears of Iran developing nuclear weapons have been voiced since the 1980’s. By 1990, when it had become increasingly clear that Iran was violating non-proliferation norms, the US imposed sanctions on Iran. Since then, sanctions have gradually increased in scope. In addition, the US has had success in rallying more and more UN countries to support the sanctions program.

The sanctions have hurt. Iran’s oil exports have fallen by about 50 percent since 2011. Although the numbers are hard to pinpoint due to questionable accuracy, Iran is likely suffering through about 30 percent inflation and 20 percent unemployment. This deep economic turmoil has had a significant impact on the lives of the Iranian people, yet Iran has continued its nuclear program without any intention to even negotiate until recent months. All the possible benefits of peaceful nuclear power couldn’t come close to outweighing the deep economic pain that Iran is suffering. So why has it obstinately insisted on maintaining its program?

This basic question and all reliable sources of intelligence indicate that Iran is aggressively pursuing nuclear weapons, even at the cost of crippling economic sanctions. It has engaged in types of enrichment that can only be for weaponry, and has specifically hidden centrifuges deep into mountains, where they are immune to many forms of aerial attack. This all suggests that Iran is most likely pursuing nuclear weapons.

Whether Iran will use nuclear weapons or not in the region is unknown; however, the important point is the threat of arms proliferation in the Middle East. Adding devastating nuclear weapons to this situation will likely encourage weapons proliferation in the region, because other nations will be at risk to an increasingly militarily powerful Iran. As Iran develops a nuclear program, other nations will attempt to match this program for strategic defensive purposes.

Furthermore, the Middle East is already the most dangerous region in the world, and is closely linked with terrorism. Because Iran has been known to sponsor terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, who are dedicated to the destruction of the State of Israel, nuclear weapons have a reasonable risk of coming under terrorist control. And all of these dangers are in addition to the threat of Iran itself using such weapons against its enemies. It’s no wonder that all responsible countries, including neighboring Muslim states, have lined up behind the effort to stop it.

It appears unlikely that Iran will accept a deal that will ban the continued production of nuclear weapons. With this in mind, it seems fair to be skeptical about the chances that these negotiations will succeed. The P5+1 should maintain the current sanctions until Iran shows real steps towards dismantling its nuclear weapons capability. The US and its partners should approach with a big stick, because naïveté and soft-handedness can lead to an empty agreement, and, later, an Iran with nuclear weapons. As such, the world should be weary of Iran’s nuclear program and its progress.

Contributed by Benjamin Horowitz. The piece, Keeping Pressure on Iran, was originally published in The Cornell Review on November 22nd, 2013. 

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