For those who realize that the gravest national security threat is not global warming but an Iranian nuclear-threshold state, this is a critical time. Secretary of State John Kerry is pleading for more time, but time is not on our side. Former CIA director Michael Hayden and former senator Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) explained in an op-ed yesterday:

There are also great dangers if the interim agreement under the Joint Plan of Action is succeeded by another interim agreement or even if the current negotiating window is extended by another six months. The administration will be sorely tempted to let negotiations continue to drag on, hoping that the Iranians will relent and drop their resistance to any meaningful rollback of their nuclear program. But the current lull during the “freeze” on Iranian nuclear development limits only some nuclear activities; the Iranians continue to build other essential elements, such as improving the efficiency of centrifuges. As centrifuge-enrichment capacity increases, Tehran’s ability to construct clandestine enrichment sites alarmingly grows. (The lull also has let the Iranian economy improve; inflation is down and their currency has strengthened, further reducing our leverage.) Time is not on our side.

If the White House’s philosophy is that we can never increase our leverage or walk away from the table, then we will have effectively adopted a containment policy (although we don’t contain Iran anywhere in the Middle East these days).

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, raised this same concern after a briefing, telling the media: “I had a long conversation yesterday with our lead negotiator. I shared the same concerns, that I just feel the moment slipping away from us. I think all of us want to see a diplomatic solution. I don’t think there is anybody on this floor that wants to see anything less than a great result diplomatically. We are losing our leverage. Time is slipping away. The coalition is dissipating.” He’s right about that, especially given the economic recovery that Iran is making thanks to sanctions relief.

What is to be done? Kerry, frankly, can keep talking as long as he likes, but what is key is what we do to make those negotiations more effective and to stop a de facto containment policy from taking hold. JINSA, a pro-Israel foreign policy group, is out with a new Iran task force report. Co-authored by Dennis Ross, the president’s former Iran adviser, it contains important counsel for lawmakers and the White House:

While the impact of the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) on Iran’s calculus can be debated, the Iranian leadership today appears to be under less compulsion to compromise now than at the outset of the JPA interim period on January 20, leaving wide gaps between the two sides on the parameters for a comprehensive settlement. These gaps must be overcome quickly to secure a peaceful negotiated solution that prevents Iran from attaining nuclear weapons capability.
To achieve this, U.S. diplomatic engagement must be accompanied by greater pressure.
Iranian concessions will only come if Tehran believes it has more to lose than its counterparts, should negotiations fail. To peacefully prevent a nuclear Iran, American policymakers must use all available instruments of coercive diplomacy to restore credibility to their mantra that the United States is keeping all options on the table. They must do this promptly and resolutely.

This seems so elementary that one is tempted to ask whether the president and his advisers really want the talks to succeed. I believe they do — and that Kerry desperately wants a Nobel Peace Prize — but their collective vanity and ineptitude keep getting in the way. To get to where they want (a deal that Congress will accept, that will satisfy allies, that will send Kerry to Helsinki), Dennis Ross and the other task force members recommend a package of measures, all designed to turn up the heat on Iran:

On most key issues, Iran’s apparent parameters for a final deal would be unacceptable for the United States, including: maintaining its current level of centrifuges (and eventually expanding it); keeping its heavy water reactor at Arak; and insisting that any restrictions on its nuclear program begin to ease after only several years. Given Tehran’s need to remove remaining sanctions permanently, American diplomats could try to reduce Iran’s demands by insisting that such relief will occur only gradually and concomitant to concrete actions by Iran that irreversibly roll back its nuclear program and resolve critical questions about its past activities that triggered such sanctions in the first place.
Because Iran has a strong incentive for sanctions to be relieved, the United States should also threaten even deeper sanctions against energy and other vital economic sectors that would take effect if an acceptable deal is not concluded by the interim deadline. Rather than threatening to veto such measures, the White House should instead capitalize on sanctions leverage by making the case publicly for why such conditional measures do not violate the interim deal.

In walking back (running, really) a Kerry statement hinting at just such sanctions, Kerry let it be known that we shouldn’t hold our breath. The president’s eagerness for a deal and anxiety that Iran might walk away preclude him from seizing the most effective leverage we have.

At any rate, the task forces recommends other steps:

The Administration could put the pressure back on Iran by seeking Congressional review and approval for any comprehensive settlement. A bipartisan consensus in Washington would communicate U.S. resolve to walk away from the table without an acceptable final deal, thus limiting the range of Iranian demands to which the United States might feasibly agree and undercutting Iran’s incentive to play for time. . . .
The United States already has sufficient capability in the region to exercise the military option, including 35,000 troops in the region as well as significant air and naval assets. However, the credibility of that option is also a function of the perceived U.S. willingness to use it, should diplomacy fail. To this end, American policymakers and officials should clarify and strengthen their declaratory policy, to underscore the seriousness of their stated intention to keep all options on the table. This could include Congressional hearings on the feasibility of the U.S. military option. It could also include statements that: highlight, rather than repeatedly downplay, the viability of the military option; publicly support the right of U.S. allies to defend themselves if an acceptable deal is not reached; and publicize advanced U.S. military capabilities, including the GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) bunker buster designed specifically to neutralize targets like Iran’s deeply-buried illegal nuclear facilities. Deployments or exercises could reinforce this message of readiness, similar to when the United States responded to North Korean nuclear threats by flying B-52 strategic bombers over the southern half of the Korean peninsula in March 2013. . .
[And] the United States could generate additional leverage by transferring MOP bunker busters to Israel. Because Israel currently lacks aircraft to carry the MOP, the United States would need to transfer an appropriate delivery capability as well.

The task force also recommends closer coordination with allies “to credibly signal that any final deal must also reflect their concerns and interests, and to articulate alternatives should diplomacy fail. . . . The United States should also develop an understanding with its partners on the  conditions that could prompt them to use force to prevent a nuclear Iran.”

I’m not optimistic that the White House will embrace any of these items or let Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) hold a vote on any of them. But Congress should try, and it should demand that the administration justify its “no leverage” approach. If Hillary Clinton is serious about separating herself from the dreadful policies of her ex-boss, she should do the same; if not, we know that she’s just as misguided as President Obama.

Then there are the midterms, when a new GOP Senate majority could tip the scales in favor of congressional action. Ultimately, however, the success of the talks is a matter of presidential will and credibility. Since we have a dearth of both, there is reason to worry — and for Israel to prepare its own military option after it finishes with Iran’s surrogates in Gaza.