As 193 member countries of the United Nations (UN) gathered in New York City at the end of September for the General Assembly meeting there were no shortage of crises to discuss: the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the military tensions between Ukraine and Russia, the Islamic State (ISIS), etc. 

Given this state of affairs, another pressing issue that should not fly under the radar is the Iran nuclear negotiations. This is no less important to get right.


The goal of ongoing negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council -- United States, Great Britain, France, Russia, and China -- plus Germany), is to ensure Iran’s nuclear program cannot be used to build a nuclear weapon. This is a goal that many believe is achievable as long as the negotiators have room to find a solution.

Stark choices

The options in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program are stark: a comprehensive agreement in which the international community has on-the-ground knowledge of Iran’s nuclear activities or a situation similar to today where lack of communication and transparency could prompt the United States to take military action against Iran.

Some analysts argue that the United States could perform so-called “surgical strikes” on Iran’s nuclear facilities without causing many casualties on either side. But we know from experience how quickly a short-term contingency operation can turn into a full-blown war that results in the occupation of yet another Muslim nation. Moreover, military strikes could have unintended effects. Bombs cannot erase scientific knowledge, but they can motivate fractured populations to unite against a common enemy.

Conversely, a negotiated agreement would put in place strict monitoring and verification measures that require unfettered access to Iran’s nuclear facilities. With these safeguards in place, it would be much easier to detect any attempts at cheating. 

We should be grateful that a broad coalition of world leaders is pursuing the diplomatic option. Indeed, we have already seen the payoff from these negotiations.

Signed in January, The First Step Agreement required Iran to roll back its nuclear program and allow unprecedented international inspections. In return, the U.S. and others would eventually ease some of the sanctions on Iran’s economy. As of this writing, international inspectors have reported that Iran has complied with the all conditions of the First Step Agreement, including converting its fissile material into a form that prevents it from being used to build a nuclear weapon.

No room for obstruction

The deadline for Iran and the P5+1 to come to a comprehensive agreement that verifiably prevents Iran from building a nuclear bomb is Nov. 24. Given the great progress we’ve already made, the worst thing we could do between now and then is obstruct the negotiators from using all their leverage to get a good deal.

Unfortunately some members of Congress have threatened to undermine the negotiations before they were given a chance to succeed. For instance, soon after the First Step Agreement was announced, Sens. Robert MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezSpending bill faces Senate scramble Republicans raise concerns over Biden's nominee for ambassador to Germany Biden sets off high-stakes scramble over spending framework MORE (D-N.J.) and Mark KirkMark Steven KirkDuckworth announces reelection bid Brave new world: Why we need a Senate Human Rights Commission  Senate majority battle snags Biden Cabinet hopefuls MORE (R-Ill.) pushed for new sanctions on Iran in violation of that agreement’s terms. Luckily, there was enough opposition to table the bill.

Other members have suggested terms for the final agreement with which Iran would find it impossible to agree, such as complete dismantlement of its installed uranium centrifuges. Alternative solutions could have the same overall effect of preventing Iran from building a nuclear weapon, while also being politically acceptable. For instance, as Kelsey Davenport of the Arms Control Association notes, “with appropriate limits and intrusive monitoring, Iran can retain a uranium-enrichment program, while the international community is assured that Tehran cannot move quickly to produce material for nuclear weapons.”

What’s at stake

Congress must give diplomacy a chance. With the United States sliding back into another war in the region, this is not an issue that we can afford to screw up. Prudent diplomacy and negotiations can result in an Iran incapable of developing nuclear weapons while avoiding a senseless loss of life and treasure.

Fein is the Nuclear Weapons Policy director for Women’s Action for New Directions (WAND).