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11.23.14 12:59 PM ET

Iran Nuke Deal: A Matter of War or Peace

It’s not a matter of a breakthrough in the Vienna talks or muddling through indefinitely if they fail. If that happens, Iran will be much more dangerous, and so will Israel.

Only a few hours are left before time runs out on negotiations with Iran to contain its nuclear program, and everyone’s asking, “Deal or no deal?” But the real question is, “War or peace?”

“People forget where we were two years ago,” says Rouzbeh Parsi, a Swedish academic who visited Vienna last week and talked to officials from both sides. In those days, the world faced the very real threat that Israel would launch a military strike against Iran that would, almost inevitably, suck the United States into another massive war in the Middle East.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held up a cartoon bomb in a September 2012 speech to the United Nations General Assembly and drew a red line under the fuse, showing how close Iran was to accumulating the highly enriched uranium needed to make a nuclear weapon. The doodle seen round the world was a not very subtle threat by an Israeli prime minister who describes the Iranian program as a threat to his country’s very existence.

The United States, beginning under the George W. Bush administration, expressed doubts about Iran’s intent to build a bomb, and had persuaded Israel to hold back by targeting the Iranian program in what amounted to a covert war. Its most important element was the extremely sophisticated Stuxnet computer virus that infected the operating systems and crippled some of the machinery used to enrich uranium. (The United States, to date, has not been directly implicated in the several murders and attempted murders of Iranian nuclear scientists over the years, widely thought to be the work of Israeli agents.)

President Barack Obama declared flatly that Iran would never be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons, and Israeli leaders were persuaded, as then-Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told me in January 2013, that the “the Pentagon prepared quite sophisticated, fine, extremely fine, ‘scalpels,’” with which to attack Iran if necessary. “So it is not an issue of a major war or a failure to block Iran. You could under a certain situation, if worse comes to worst, end up with a surgical operation.”

But the imposition of tough new United Nations sanctions on Iran and the election of the relatively moderate Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in the summer of 2013 opened the way for new dialogue. That culminated in the “Joint Action Plan,” an interim agreement that was signed exactly one year ago on Monday, which froze Iran’s nuclear program, and which both sides have observed.

Importantly, as part of the interim plan, Iran has diluted or converted its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium. It also has allowed much more extensive, although not entirely satisfactory, UN inspections. So, for the moment at least, Netanyahu’s red line on the cartoon bomb has faded. Iran is considerably farther from a weapons –building capacity than it was one year ago unless it has an entirely hidden covert operation that no one has yet detected. But, as Americans learned with the invasion of Iraq, suspicions about what former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld used to call “unknown unknowns”  are a very poor reason to wage a war.

Iran, for its part, has said repeatedly that it is not developing nuclear weapons and does not want them, and points out that it is a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). True, it has been held in “material breach” of that agreement in the past, but Israel is not a signatory at all, which means Iran allows at least some U.N. inspections, while Israel does not and, for that matter, does not officially acknowledge it is a nuclear weapons state.

A successful agreement between Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) would lock in the gains already made with the interim agreement and expand on them considerably while alleviating sanctions that are crippling much of Iran’s economy. But if the current Vienna talks fail, then all bets are off. Yes, there is the possibility of an extension. But the option of replacing a new diplomatic breakthrough with open-ended diplomatic muddle-through is not on the table.

That’s why we see even the not-very-helpful-these-days Russians playing an important role in these talks. Nobody in Vienna wants them to fail, and Moscow’s offer to sell new nuclear reactors to the Iranians with the fuel tightly monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency and reprocessed outside Iran, is seen by U.S. officials as a sweetener in these negotiations. Secretary Kerry has been working the phones with Netanyahu, and is due to meet Sunday afternoon with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, whose country is at least as worried as Israel is about a nuclear Iran.

So, why aren’t we hearing “Kumbaya” from the Palais Coburg hotel, where the talks are taking place? It’s not just a matter of devilish details, it’s fundamentally a problem of politics back home in Tehran and Washington, where neither the Obama administration nor the Rouhani administration have enough authority, at this point, to guarantee a solid deal on their own.

American politicians who want to be seen to be as tough or tougher defending Israel’s interests than the Israeli government itself, which is saying something, have dominated the U.S. Congress for years, and now that the Senate is about to be run by the Republicans, that situation is only likely to get more pronounced. Meanwhile powerful members of Iran’s parliament, and, more importantly, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have expressed major skepticism about a deal that would ask Iran to give up a lot of nuclear technology, which would be hard to get back, in order to have sanctions lifted gradually, which could be re-imposed from one day to the next.

But, really, the situation is worse than that. Many of those demanding new and tougher sanctions and a much more dramatic dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program are, in fact, hopeful that such measures and such demands will lead to the collapse of the current regime in Iran. And many members of that regime think that is precisely the intent of the United States and Israel, no matter what happens in Vienna.

If no deal is reached, then the Iranian government certainly will look for something else to guarantee its survival, like, say, nuclear weapons. And Israel will look for a way to stop it, like, war.