by Derek Davison

As Iran and six world powers scramble to reach a deal over Iran’s nuclear program by the deadline of Nov. 24 in Vienna, Washington is seeing a flurry of last-minute events focused on the pros and cons of pursuing diplomacy with Tehran.

While advocates from both sides made their arguments on Capitol Hill this week, two distinguished former US ambassadors told an audience here Wednesday that a deal between world powers and Iran over its nuclear program offers “huge advantages” and that the chances of a “complete breakdown” in the talks at this stage are low, even if the prospect of a comprehensive accord being signed before the looming deadline is also unlikely.

Stuart Eizenstat, who played a key role in promoting sanctions against Iran under both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, endorsed the diplomatic process with Iran at a Nov. 19 panel discussion hosted here by the Atlantic Council.

“I am of the belief that an agreement is important, and that there are huge advantages—to the United States, to the West, and to Israel—in having an agreement along the lines of what we see emerging,” he said.

Last month the veteran diplomat, who was named special adviser to the secretary on Holocaust issues last year, offered a key endorsement of diplomacy with Iran in an interview with the Jerusalem Post.

Eizenstat, who currently chairs the Coucil’s Iran Task Force, also emphasized the consequences of failing to reach an accord with Iran:

Without an agreement, one always has to ask, “What’s the alternative?” No deal means an unrestrained [Iranian] use of centrifuges, it means a continuation of the Iranian plutonium plant in Arak, it means no intrusive inspections by the IAEA, it means no elimination of [Iran’s] 20% enriched uranium, it means less likelihood of eliminating weaponization, it means undercutting those who are relative moderates in Iran. So there are enormous implications.

Thomas Pickering, who served as Washington’s chief envoy in virtually every hot spot—from Moscow to San Salvador and from Lagos and Tel Aviv to Turtle Bay (in the run-up to and during the first Gulf War)—meanwhile explained why a negotiated settlement to Iran’s nuclear program is highly preferable to the “military option.”

“Nobody believes that the use of force is a guaranteed, one-shot settlement of the problem of Iran’s nuclear program,” said Pickering, who co-runs the Iran Project, which promotes diplomacy between Iran and the United States, along with several other top foreign policy experts.

Pickering also argued that a deal would open the door to “further possibilities” for US-Iranian cooperation on a host of regional issues, most immediately in serving the president’s plan of “degrading and destroying” Islamic State (ISIS or IS) forces in Iraq and Syria and in bringing stability to Afghanistan.

“I remain optimistic,” he said, “but only on the basis of the fact that reasonable people could agree.”

Pickering argued that domestic politics in both countries could be the ultimate impediment to a final deal.

“The real problem is that there is a lot of unreasoned opposition, in both countries, that is affecting the situation,” he said.

On the American side, the “unreasoned opposition” Pickering referred to is rooted in Congress, where key members of the House and Senate advocate the Israeli government’s position that any deal should completely or almost completely dismantle Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, which would be a non-starter for the Islamic Republic.

Yet whereas Pickering was critical of Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu for having “overreached” last November in calling last year’s interim Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) a “historic mistake,” Eizenstat suggested that his hardline stance may actually have toughened the P5+1’s (US, UK, Russia, China, France plus Germany) resolve to minimize Iran’s enrichment program as much as possible.

But Uzi Eilam, the former director general of the Israeli Ministry of Defense Mission to Europe, argued that Netanyahu is “getting used” to the idea that Iran will retain some enrichment capacity under a comprehensive deal.

A deal that includes stringent monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and a third party (Russian) commitment to process Iran’s enriched uranium into fuel and assume responsibility for spent reactor fuel would be enough to meet Israeli security concerns even with an active Iranian enrichment program, said Eilam.

Pickering also noted that sanctions relief remains a sticking point, with the Iranians wanting full relief immediately and the P5+1 insistent on maintaining some sanctions in order to ensure Iran’s continued compliance with the terms of the final accord. But he was joined by Eizenstat in arguing that it would be “almost impossible” (Eizenstat’s words) for both sides to just walk away from the talks at this point.

While both Iran and the P5+1 continue to insist that they are focused on reaching a comprehensive accord by the deadline, with just three days to go, it appears highly unlikely.

As to how long the talks would go on in the event of an extension, Pickering argued that “short-term would be better than long-term,” though he acknowledged that “short-term is harder to get because everybody’s tired, they want to go home and think.”

Eizenstat added that the impending political change in Washington, where Republicans will take control of the Senate in January and are expected to oppose any deal with Iran, would make a short extension more desirable than a long-term one.

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