Over the past year, our nation's diplomats have been working tirelessly to produce an agreement that will prevent both an Iranian nuclear weapon and another war in the Middle East. A nuclear-armed Iran poses a grave threat to the United States and our allies, likely provoking a regional arms race and further destabilizing an already turbulent region. Keeping Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon is of central importance to American security — and achieving this through tough diplomacy is difficult, but possible.
My generation of combat veterans, foreign policy practitioners, and political leaders understands all too well the sacrifice that may be required if diplomacy fails. Many of us, myself included, have spent our adult lives attempting to redeem the aftermath of a deeply unnecessary war in the Middle East, launched in the name of nonproliferation. Simply put, we have been defined by sacrifices too great to accept a failure to learn from the mistakes of the recent past.
This time, unlike in Iraq, the existence of a dangerous nuclear program is indisputable, and negotiations are more than theater. Iran has been isolated from the world for decades. Thanks to the aggressive sanctions regime supported by US allies, Iran was forced to the negotiating table. These talks demonstrate American strength and leadership, and they are the only action that has halted Iran's nuclear program in years.
The ongoing talks have not been based on a "trust but verify" strategy. Since the United States expects Iran to try and cheat, verification has superseded trust. This is why the United States has based negotiations on constant monitoring of critical elements of the nuclear program. With global powers acting together, the burden of proof remains on Iran. While the parties are still far apart on some key technical issues, both sides have incentives to come to an agreement that solves the Iran nuclear crisis through diplomacy, not war. If Iran cheats, the international community will act.
Congress helped get us where we are today with strong sanctions that the Obama administration enforced. Sanctions played a crucial part in a comprehensive strategy to get Iran to the table — a show of how American leadership should work.
But calls by some political leaders to enact additional sanctions now are shortsighted and counterproductive. Generally speaking, sanctions are used as a tool to get a state to the negotiating table. The goal of being at the negotiating table is to strike a deal. That's where we are now.
To be sure, unilateral moves by the United States or any of the negotiating parties risks derailing these talks. Iran would likely kick out inspectors and resume the nuclear activities that have been frozen over the past year. If that happened, the United States could find itself back where we were last year: on the way to another war in the Middle East.
America is stronger when we engage with the world using all the tools of national power, including defense, diplomacy, development, and democratic principles. With military options always on the table, tough diplomacy works best when senior US officials — from the administration and Congress — present a united front to the world and negotiate as Americans. To that end, we must all work for a diplomatic outcome that keeps America safe and nuclear weapons out of the hands of Iran.
Michael Breen is the executive director of the Truman National Security Project and a combat veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.