"When I go to Iran, I see... that there are all different shades and colors in Iran, from atheist to religious zealot. So Iran is no different than any other country." -Mohamed El Baradei, Former Director General of the IAEA
On Tuesday night, President Obama mentioned the ongoing status of negotiations regarding Iran's nuclear policy in his State of the Union address. Negotiations have been going on for years to limit Iran's capability to enrich uranium (one of the most important and difficult aspects of making a nuclear weapon), and talks have recently been extended once again.
Congressional Republicans have been adamant about their proposal to increase sanctions on Iran, while Obama threatened in his speech to veto any such action. To complicate matters even more, the very next day, House speaker John Boehner invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to a joint session of Congress on this issue, circumventing the traditional diplomatic channels of the president and the State Department. What is really at stake with regards to these negotiations?
First, let's quickly break down what Iran is doing and why it matters. Iran has been attempting to enrich uranium for over a decade. Enriched uranium is typically used either for nuclear energy (when enriched to 20% of its ability) or as material to make a nuclear weapon (at least 90% enriched and much harder to do). While Iran is allowed to enrich to 20%, many fear that the country is getting ready to enrich to 90%. With that, they could, in theory, build a nuclear weapon within a matter of weeks (this is known as breakout capacity).
What would a nuclear Iran do to the stability of the Middle East? Well, the concept of mutually assured destruction (where nobody nukes each other because they would get nuked themselves) comes in to play here. If Iran gets a nuclear weapon, it is highly likely that countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkey will want one as well. Though some argue nuclear weapons actually make the world more stable, it is probably best to keep the number of nuclear armed states as low as possible. Israel (despite their insistence to the contrary) already has nuclear weapons, but most Arab nations do not actually view Israel as an existential threat.
Assuming Iran actually wants a weapon and isn't just pretending to gain political concessions, why does Iran want a nuclear weapon? Not because they are evil or crazy or because they want to destroy Israel (such an action would result in their immediate destruction, not to mention it would harm millions of Muslims in the process). Their motivation for pursuing a nuclear weapon is the same as every other nation of the world: regime security. Like with North Korea, a regime seeking to stay in power has a much better chance with a nuclear weapon in its arsenal.
It isn't hard to imagine why most of the world doesn't want this to happen. There are several options on the table for preventing this. Probably the most extreme (and in my opinion short-sighted) action is to bomb Iran's nuclear enrichment facilities. However, I believe this would cause several serious problems. First, the facilities are spread across a large area and this could cause a serious military confrontation. Some facilities, like Natanz and Fordow, are located next to Iranian towns and cities, so a strike would likely cause thousands of civilian casualties (see "nuclear gamble"). Finally, this action would only set their program back rather than actually end their desire for regime security.
Increasing sanctions has been the rallying cry of Congressional Republicans for years. Economic sanctions (measures designed to prevent other nations from trading with Iran) were implemented years ago as a means to bring Iran to the negotiating table. Negotiations are at a tentative place right now as it is, and imposing more sanctions would probably end the talks altogether.
Finally, there is the option to continue negotiations. There are many options which can be worked out such as allowing other nations to enrich uranium for Iran or bringing International Atomic Energy Agency officials into Iranian facilities for regular inspections. Negotiations have been slowly progressing, but no lasting deal has yet been reached.
Ultimately, I believe it is best to continue negotiations with Iran. With the amount of attention organizations like the CIA are probably giving to this issue, it is unlikely that Iran will suddenly produce a weapon without anyone's knowledge. Furthermore, talking with Iran's leaders allows the United States to prevent something unacceptable (a nuclear Iran) by exchanging it with something more acceptable (Iranian regime security). Israel (somewhat understandably) has serious objections to both a nuclear Iran and Iranian regime security. Boehner's invitation to the Israeli Prime Minister is clearly a shot at Obama's negotiation efforts. If Netanyahu accepts this, he will almost certainly advocate for sanctions on Iran, if not full armed intervention.
America's foreign policy cannot reduce the world into good and evil nations. We shouldn't treat Iran like an enemy and then be surprised when it acts just like an enemy. Just like the events preceding the war in Iraq, we have started interpreting every Iranian move in a negative light, assuming the worst of every action or statement they make. Only when we address the fundamental reason for a nuclear weapons program (regime security), will we have any chance of creating a lasting agreement.
TL;DR: If Iran wants a nuclear weapon, it is only to ensure their own survival. Maybe there is another way to guarantee security without nuclear weapons.