What are we to make of last weekend's talks in Istanbul on Iran's nuclear program? For the first time in 15 months, Iranian representatives sat with the P5+1 group — the United States, Russia, China, Great Britain and France (permanent members of the UN Security Council) plus Germany.
Catherine Ashton, the European Union foreign policy chief, called the talks "constructive and useful" and asserted that Iran, by agreeing to meet again in Baghdad on May 23, seemed to signal serious interest in reaching an understanding. Skeptics, however, fear that Iran is stringing the international community along as it has done for years, buying time while working toward its nuclear goal.
We stand at a crucial juncture in the international campaign to stop Iran's nuclear program. The International Atomic Energy Agency and the intelligence services of nations around the world have determined that, contrary to its claim to be developing nuclear technology for peaceful purposes only, Iran has in fact been moving forward with plans to acquire the capability to build nuclear weapons.
Should Iran succeed, U.S. interests in the region would be severely compromised. The nuclear prize would embolden Shiite Iran to commit aggression against Sunni nations in the region, and the latter, feeling threatened, would rush to join the nuclear club themselves. Saudi Arabia and others have made that clear.
Nuclear proliferation could spread to non-state entities, too, with Iran supplying missiles, or other devices, to terrorist cells. Oil supplies from the Gulf might be disrupted. And our democratic ally Israel, already under Iranian threat of being wiped off the map, would have its very existence endangered.
The international community has leveled a steadily mounting series of economic sanctions against Iran, and more is on the way. On June 28, U.S. sanctions on firms doing business with the Iranian central bank — a vital component of the country's oil sector — come into effect. Three days later, on July 1, the EU will end all purchases of Iranian oil, a step already taken by several of its member states.
The prospect of harsh new blows to its already reeling economy from sharply reduced oil revenues may very well have been the deciding factor that motivated Tehran to sit down with the P5+1. Since sanctions against Iran's banking and energy sectors seem to be working, it is imperative to fully maintain them until their goal is attained. Talks alone do not justify any loosening of the sanctions.
President Obama and other world leaders have expressed a strong preference for a negotiated solution. But international patience is wearing thin. "We're not going to have these talks drag on in a stalling process," Obama said.
Secretary of State Hillar linton, for her part, has made it clear that U.S. policy "is one of prevention, not containment" — that is, America is on record declaring that it cannot live with a nuclear Iran. Secretary Clinton has sent Iran a warning that it better mean business this time. "We enter into these talks with a sober perspective about Iran's intentions," she said before Istanbul. "It is incumbent upon Iran to demonstrate by its actions that it is a willing partner and to participate in these negotiations with an effort to obtain concrete results."
So far, Iran has not shifted. It certainly is not suspending or slowing down its nuclear program. A lot of diplomacy will be needed before the Baghdad meeting to test Iran's sincerity to negotiate in good faith.
Yet there remains a troubling ambiguity in the campaign to prevent Iran from going nuclear: where exactly is our red line? We must make clear that we will not wait until the actual construction of a bomb before taking action, but rather insist on no Iranian nuclear capability. Once Tehran crosses that threshold and the path to nuclear weaponry lies clearly before it, all the elements of geopolitical instability that threaten our interests will come into play.
The P5+1 nations will need to stand firm and united in this global chess game. President Obama's warning to Iran must be taken seriously: "The clock is ticking," he said.
Rachel Miller is the Director of the AJC Palm Beach County Regional Office. Brian Siegal is the Director of the AJC Miami/Broward County Regional Office.