Two years ago, Washington's influential neoconservatives -- both inside and outside government -- shot down a possible resolution to the Iranian nuclear dispute because they wanted a confrontation with Tehran that some hoped would lead to their long-held dream of "regime change."
In the ensuing two years, the cost of that confrontation has been high not just for Iranians, who have faced harsh sanctions, but for the world's economy. For instance, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's recent escalation of bomb-Iran rhetoric contributed to the spike in gasoline prices that seems to be choking off the U.S. recovery, just as job growth was starting to accelerate.
But the Israelis and their neocon allies have yet to back away from the path toward war. They appear ready to take President Barack Obama to task if he makes any meaningful concessions to Iran in international negotiations that are set to resume in Istanbul, Turkey, on Friday.
A key question in those talks is whether some version of an earlier peace deal can be revived, whether Iran will agree to trade some of its enriched uranium -- especially the amounts refined to 20 percent -- for nuclear isotopes needed for medical research. That arrangement might let Iran retain its low-enriched uranium for energy production.
Along with verifiable commitments from Iran not to develop a nuclear bomb, such a deal might be enough for President Obama and the West to begin rolling back some of the toughest economic sanctions imposed on Iran, including restrictions on Iran's banking and oil sales.
However, it's also clear that any compromise would provoke fury from the neocons as well as war hawks in Congress and Israel. They all may claim they don't want a new war with Iran but still insist on a confrontational path that leads in that direction.
On Thursday, the neocon-dominated Washington Post editorialized that a deal might be within Obama's grasp to avert an immediate conflict with Iran, but "the risk is that it would be counter-productive in the medium term, because it would ease what is now mounting economic pressure on Iran and allow the regime breathing space."
The Post added:
"It could leave the [Iranian] nuclear program in a stronger position than it was when the Obama administration began negotiations in the fall of 2009 -- with more centrifuges and enough low-enriched uranium to make several nuclear bombs with further processing. If the regime refused a more comprehensive deal, or cheated, it might be difficult to restore sanctions that only now finally appear to be biting.
"With the presidential election looming, President Obama might be happy to trade those problems for avoiding a major international crisis in the coming months. For us, the call is closer. But most likely the Iranians themselves will settle the matter. For better or for worse, the chances the regime will meet Mr. Obama's terms don't look good."
In recent comments, key Iranians have signaled flexibility along the lines of the earlier swap arrangement, but the reason why such a deal might leave Tehran "in a stronger position" than in 2009-2010 is that then the Post's editors, along with other neocon pundits and allies inside the Obama administration, sank the earlier plan for Iran to surrender much of its low-enriched uranium for isotopes needed by an Iranian medical research reactor.
Iran had yet to overcome the technical obstacles to refine uranium to the 20 percent level to produce those isotopes. Now, Iran's 20 percent level is only a few steps short of bringing uranium to the 90 percent refinement for a nuclear bomb. So, the earlier deal would have left Iran much further from the threshold of a nuclear-bomb capability.
However, in 2009 -- and again in 2010 -- Washington's neocon voices ridiculed the proposed uranium swap on the grounds that Iran would have kept enough low-enriched uranium (at the much lower 3.5 percent level) that it could theoretically, sometime in the future, be able to refine it and build one nuclear bomb.
Today, Iran has much more enriched uranium at a much higher level, enough for at least several theoretical nuclear bombs (though Iran says it doesn't want any).
So, one could agree with the Post's assessment that Iran's nuclear position today is stronger than it was in 2009 and 2010. But whose fault was that? It would seem to rest more with the Post editorialists and other neocons who demanded the heightened confrontation with Iran in place of the uranium swap.
For instance, even before the revived swap deal was unveiled on May 17, 2010, the Washington Post's editors were mocking the leaders of Brazil and Turkey who had spearheaded the initiative. The Post called the plan "yet another effort to 'engage' the extremist clique of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad."
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