Courtesy Reuters

There is no more controversial issue on the foreign policy agenda than how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program. A year and a half ago, we published Iran and the Bomb, containing highlights from three decades of our coverage on the topic. Since then, the issue has remained on the world’s front burner, with the direct negotiations begun last fall marking a new era of diplomatic progress. Supporters of the interim accord between Iran and the P5+1 countries (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) consider the agreement a landmark event paving the way for an end to one of the world’s most enduring and volatile conflicts. Many critics take the opposite view, seeing it as a modern-day Munich paving the way for an eventual nuclear Iran. Whether the negotiations will succeed or fail, and what the consequences will be in either case, will be among 2014’s most gripping dramas. 

As usual, Foreign Affairs has been at the center of public debate over these events, and with the negotiations coming to a head, we have decided to publish an update to our earlier collection, pulling together a broad range of pieces from the last year that illuminate Iran’s turn toward negotiations, the pros and cons of the interim agreement, and the geopolitical and psychological intricacies of the crucial U.S.-Iranian-Israeli triangle. Once again, the authors include world-renowned experts from several disciplines and professional backgrounds, and once again their arguments span every significant position on the political spectrum. Now, as before, therefore, the collection offers an excellent overview of the current situation and all the material required for readers to develop their own opinions about how to proceed.

The first section of the book contains articles examining the inner workings of the Iranian regime. “Who Is Ali Khamenei?” by the Iranian dissident Akbar Ganji, is a groundbreaking intellectual profile of Iran’s enigmatic supreme leader, the single most important decision-maker in the entire affair. Suzanne Maloney’s “Why Rouhani Won -- And Why Khamenei Let Him” stresses just how much of a hand Khamenei had in the election of the reformer Hassan Rouhani as president last June, and what that means for the chances of real change in the Islamic Republic. And in “Rouhani's Gorbachev Moment,” Stephen Kotkin explores how one will be able to tell whether Rouhani is a genuine reformer or not.     

The second section looks at the recent negotiations and interim accord. Robert Jervis’ “Getting to Yes With Iran” sets out a strategy for effective coercive diplomacy, and his follow-on article, “On the Road to Yes With Iran,” evaluates how well the Obama administration has performed on that front so far. In “Talk Is Cheap,” Patrick Clawson warns that getting Iran to come to the negotiating table was easy, but that maintaining its interest in talks will be much harder. Finally, in “Saved by the Deal,” Suzanne Maloney urges patience on the grounds that nuclear diplomacy has already started to empower Iran’s moderates and, should it continue, will intensify the “pressure on them to deliver to the Iranian people.”

The third section sets out alternative policy options for the United States. In “Don’t Get Suckered by Iran,” Mitchell B. Reiss and Ray Takeyh call on the United States to try to fix the interim agreement’s shortfalls, including its promise to eventually treat Iran’s nuclear program “in the same manner as that of any other non-nuclear weapon state party to the NPT.” In "Confidence Enrichment," Kenneth Pollack explains why the interim agreement is a deal worth taking. Matthew Kroenig’s “Still Time to Attack Iran” advocates taking the bull by the horns and launching a limited U.S. military strike against Iranian nuclear targets. Colin Kahl responds that it is “Still Not Time to Attack Iran,” since a military strike would cause more problems than it would solve. And in “Befriend the Scientists,” Jacques E. C. Hymans writes that, for the nuclear deal to stick, the United States must win over the scientists and pencil pushers who keep Iran’s nuclear program running.

The fourth and last section of the book widens the discussion, bringing in voices from Israel. In “Pushing Peace,” Trita Parsi takes on those who say that nuclear negotiations are bad for Israel. Elliott Abrams assumes the opposite stance in “Bibi the Bad Cop,” explaining what Israel could try to do to thwart talks. And in “Why Israel Is So Afraid,” Ariel Ilan Roth writes that Washington's diplomatic engagement with Tehran may, ironically, make Jerusalem more likely to attack now, because it fears that later could be too late.

In my introduction to our earlier collection, I noted that the challenge in Iran policy (as is so often the case) lay not in picking an ideal course but in choosing among lesser evils. That remains true today: Practically nobody thinks that the interim agreement represents a wonderful, durable solution to the problem of Iran’s nuclear file. The real question is whether it can serve as a useful platform for further negotiations, a confidence-building measure that allows the parties to test one another’s sincerity and ability to deliver more substantive results down the road. Jaw-jaw, Churchill famously said, is better than war-war -- but whether this current round of jaw-jaw will prove a substitute for war-war, or merely a prelude to it, remains an open question.