Here's a quiz: Which is true?
The deal completed Sunday to temporarily freeze Iran's nuclear program in exchange for minor sanctions relief is an extraordinary breakthrough, one that creates a last chance to end the Iranian nuclear threat before it leads the United States into yet another war, or
The U.S. and other international powers that negotiated the deal are naively walking into a trap that will let Iran advance its nuclear program by stealth.
The first statement is true. Such an agreement was utterly unthinkable just three months ago. To have one now is pretty much the definition of a breakthrough.
But the second could prove true as well if diplomats fail to drive a hard bargain as they try to forge an agreement over the next six months. That's if they even get the chance, as hard-liners in Iran, Israel and the U.S. Congress press efforts that would kill negotiations.
On the American side, they appear close to doing just that.
As of Monday, 59 senators had signed on as co-sponsors of a bill that would almost surely torpedo the peace bid. The bill's headline provision would impose new sanctions (and undo those just eased) if talks failed. Its supporters, headed by Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., like to argue that this just gives the Iranians greater incentive to conclude a deal.
But the bill does much more than that. It dictates terms of the final agreement — specifically, that Iran must halt not just its nuclear weapons program but rather stop all enrichment of uranium, including any used for nuclear power.
That is precisely the issue that makes the negotiations extraordinarily delicate. Iran is so publicly committed to its right to enrich that its negotiators could not give in to such a dictate even if they want to.
Nor does the bill stop there. It expresses "the sense of Congress" that if Israel decides to attack Iran, the United States should provide military support. The provision doesn't quite outsource American war decisions to Israel; Congress would still need a second vote to turn its dubious "sense" into action. But the implication is hard to miss.
The bill is useful only if held in reserve. The fact that it has so many sponsors is sufficient to deliver the message to Iran. Passing it, on the other hand, virtually guarantees an end to negotiations and a quick path to war. The Iranians are already committed to walking out if the bill passes, despite President Obama's promise of a veto, and they appear to be within months of a nuclear capability that both Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have said that they will not allow.
There is only one sensible strategy. Everyone on the U.S. side agrees that success requires the credible dismantling of Iran's nuclear program. And no one, including Secretary of State John Kerry, believes that objective can be easily attained.
What's missing is agreement on the definition of credible dismantling. That is best left to the negotiators, and judged at the end of their work. Congress will still have its say then. For now, Congress would better serve the country — and those who would fight the war that its hawks invite — by rattling its sabers rather than plunging them into the negotiators' hearts.