March 20, 2015 1:00 PM EDT

Welcome to TIME’s subscriber Q&A with TIME senior correspondent, Massimo Calabresi, who wrote this week’s story on the U.S.-Iran nuclear talks. His other stories can be found here.

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DonQuixotic asks, As Netanyahu has been a key antagonizer of Israeli/Palestinian relations over the past 20 or so years, do you think his public admission (seemingly to help win the election) that he has no intention of negotiating with Palestine will exacerbate relations along the West Bank to newly toxic levels?

Netanyahu has rapidly retreated from his pre-election opposition to a two-state solution, but the speed of his retreat shows how dangerous and potentially damaging taking that position was. The U.S. and Israel are now trying to patch things up. But a change in the Israeli policy towards a two-state solution would have implications for US interests throughout the region. Some of the responses we have seen from the administration, including leaked indications of measures they might take in response, show the seriousness with which they take Netanyahu’s statements.

nflfoghorn asks, Do you foresee another Israeli election in a few months if they can’t get a functional governing coalition in place?

Netanyahu’s surprisingly strong win means he will have an easier time forming a coalition on his terms. The scare he had going into the vote will likely discourage him from calling early elections unless he has to.

sacredh asks, Do you think that the GOP stunt of sabotaging the Iran nuclear talks will come back to bite them in the general election and in a related question, do you think that their actions over the previous 6 years have made them immune to criticism because they’re only acting like they have previously?

The longer term significance of the GOP’s letter depends largely on the outcome of the talks and the steps Congress takes in coming weeks. If the U.S.-Iran talks stall, and the GOP imposes new sanctions, they risk violating the Nov. 2013 interim agreement and blowing up talks. That could break the sanctions coalition and allow Iran to restart its nuclear program at little cost. There would then be broad criticism of the GOP, and much of it would likely attach to the letter they wrote even though the proximate cause of the damage would be the reimposition of sanctions.

DonQuixotic asks, We know Israel has nuclear weapons, even if they won’t readily admit it. Regardless of the outcome of current talks between the US and Iran, IF Iran should obtain nuclear weapons through their own doing is there any reason to suspect they would ever use them against Israel? That we wouldn’t see a repeat of the Cold War MAD deterrent between the US and the Soviet Union? Israel of course being the loudest voice in the room opposed to Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

There is a fairly robust debate over whether nuclear deterrence would work in the context of the current Middle East. The argument in favor of deterrence, which Robert Gates and others supported if all other measures failed to prevent Iran from getting the bomb, is that: Iran’s leaders are rational actors who would see the costs of using a nuclear weapons; that deterrence worked against the Soviet Union; and that it would avoid another conflict in the region. The argument against deterrence is that it would be occurring in a very different context than it did in the Cold War: it would be in a region where other countries will certainly try to get nuclear weapons; where no country could rely on having a second strike capability, which underpins MAD, which means everyone will be on a hair trigger; where conflict is the norm, communication between countries is imperfect and crises spread rapidly on the basis of misunderstanding.

deconstructiva asks, MC, thanks for story on Iran and distrust. While we and Iran are still “sworn enemies” with deep mistrust, does it always have to be that way? The USSR was our greatest enemy, yet Gorbachev thawed the ice with Reagan, Thatcher, and Kohl, and of course, earlier Nixon went to China and started change there. What’s to stop Obama from doing the same with Iran? Nixon goes to China; Obama goes to Iran?

Yes, Iran is Shia while not-so-friendly neighbor Saudi Arabia is Sunni, so needless to say, there would have to be a delicate balancing act on our part in trying to deal with both countries. And of course, verification of everything Iran does is needed in every deal. But at some point, self-preservation has to kick in on Iran’s part, and maybe some degree of normalcy with us could benefit them, including easing sanctions, and of course, reduce the risk of war?

…and naturally, to view this from a more Machiavellian lens, if we could establish some minimal relations with Shia Iran, we could play that off Sunni Saudi Arabia to get better deals for ourselves. After all, we arm Saudi Arabia – Russia and China don’t – so we hold that card (similar to Israel, yes?).

Obama has given repeated indications that he would be willing to turn the page with Iran. The problem has been primarily on the Iranian side. While President Rouhani and much of the Iranian people have shown a willingness to reciprocate, the ultimate power remains with the Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, who remains determined in his opposition to rapprochement and distrustful of the US and its motives. It is not even clear he is willing to make the concessions required to reach a nuclear deal, let alone address the much harder issues regarding terrorism, Israel, Hezbollah, Iraq and so on.

DonQuixotic asks, Massimo, Do you think the unprecedented measure Republicans Senators took in writing to Tehran about the possibility that they could overturn concessions and agreements the Obama Administration is seeking damages the diplomatic efforts of the State Department going forward? That it doesn’t make us seem weaker and more frayed in the eyes of other nations?

The State department engages in a very broad and diverse range of efforts. If the GOP letter has lasting consequences it likely will be limited to the specific question of Iranian nuclear capability. That is a serious issue, but U.S. diplomatic credibility on issues of, say, trade in the Pacific won’t be directly affected.

PaulDirks asks, Sane people can all agree that the best way to prevent Iran from Nuclear development is a widespread and aggressive inspection regime. Unfortunately, the situation in Iraq proves that even having a widespread and aggressive inspection regime means nothing if the US decides not to believe it’s own reports. It would seem that a lack of trust in the West is actually Iran’s only logical move. When actual Congressmen seem unaware that Iran is FIGHTING ISIL, what are the chances that we aren’t going to end up the ones being labelled the aggressor when this whole thing falls apart?

By the account of several administration officials I spoke with for this story, the most important parts of the deal are the provisions regarding monitoring, transparency and inspections. Those provisions remain a major sticking point, as Iran views intrusive sanctions as a potential violation of its sovereignty. The likely mechanism for intrusive inspections will be via the International Atomic Energy Agency, which already operates nuclear safeguard inspections in Iran under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which Iran is a signatory. The IAEA has drafted additional protocols aimed at building assurances that the Iranians are not pursuing a military nuclear program. The U.S. officials suggest that even further concessions on the Iranian part will be necessary.

deconstructive asks, MC, we can honestly say off the record that if it weren’t for oil, with the exception of our alliance with Israel, we wouldn’t be as engaged in the Middle East otherwise. Witness our engagement in Africa – or not. Boko Haram is just as vicious as ISIS, yet the latter gets more of our attention. It took Ebola to get our attention about those smaller western African nations. Even with rising enviornmental problems during our increased energy production (think fracking wastewater, leaky pipelines, and exploding trains, but I digress), might our future energy industry – both increased oil at home plus rising alternate sources (lower their prices and more people will use them, electric cars, etc.) – get us to a point where we don’t need to be involved in the Middle East and their endless infighting (Sunni vs. Shia, dictator vs. king, etc.) and we can walk away and let them fight among themselves? I doubt that will happen in the short term, but our increased energy independence could tip the balance of power IF we don’t screw that up, though of course, the GOP excels at screwing things up, aka The Letter, yes?

There has been long been bipartisan support for “energy independence” thanks to the strategic benefits that would come from not having to rely on the Middle East for our energy needs. That slogan tends to be as far as the bipartisan support goes, however, as disagreements over environmental, regulatory and other concerns rapidly divide the right and the left. However even if the U.S. were to achieve “energy independence” thanks to advances in fracking and renewables, a nuclear Iran would shackle us to the region. A nuclear armed Iran would mean increased threats to our allies, the need to prevent nuclear confrontation, and a rise in the dangers of state and non-state proliferation. Any one of those would be a sufficiently serious threat to U.S. interests that it would require the U.S. to remain deeply involved in the region.

deconstructive asks, MC, we can safely bet that Netanyahu will build his coalition from the far right, so given his recent shenanigans, how do you expect Obama to react, or not? Is Obama angry enough to retaliate, or just default and do nothing except complain a lot? Might we see some “abstain” votes in the UN Security Council to allow the UN to get involved in creating Palestine? Or even more blunt measure like withholding some weapons from them, except for minimal defense? We also do lots of trade with them (drugs, Sodasteam), but I don’t expect any trade actions.

The very well-sourced David Ignatius has an interesting story in the Washington Post today in which he lays out four measures he says are under consideration by the administration in response to Netanyahu’s (short-lived) abandonment of the two-state solution. They are: “drafting a new U.N. Security Council resolution outlining the framework for a Palestinian state.”; possible “warnings in a planned report to Congress on loan guarantees to Israel” (as Baker and H. W. did in 1991); “altering current U.S. Policy that opposes Palestinian efforts to take complaints against Israel to the ICC”; and “weighing future vetoes of UNSC resolutions condemning Israeli settlements or other activity.” None of these is likely, especially with Netanyahu backing off, but they are intentional indicators of what a real change in Israeli policy on a two-state solution might result in from the U.S.

yogi asks, In your cover story, you mention during the Iraq war the Iranians reached out to the Bush admin. How likely do you think the Iranians would have agreed to end their nuclear program then? Given Bush’s rhetoric about axis of evil and trying to keep WMDs out of hostile governments, do you think it was a blunder for the admin to refuse talks at that point in time?

U.S. Officials I have spoken with assess that the Iranians were serious in reaching out to the U.S. in 2003. And it is also the case Iran’s program was significantly less well-developed at that time. It is impossible to say whether any deal could have been reached but the U.S. was in a fairly strong negotiating position then. What they lacked, which the Obama administration has, is the pressure of economic sanctions on Iran.


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