Iran's secret nuclear sites and rumored warhead-development program have raised the stakes for tomorrow's talks in Geneva, but most pundits agree that reining in the country's nuclear ambitions will be difficult. (The Wire has covered the difficulty in imposing sanctions, the challenges to Obama's leadership, and the divide over whether Iran is building nukes.) Yet there may be another path. A growing number of security experts argue that focusing on the regime's human rights abuses might be the best tactic for winning nuclear concessions. Here's why they think the talks could fail, and why threats to destabilize the regime might work:

  • We've Talked Before  Michael Ledeen presents one of the most forceful cases for pessimism regarding the upcoming Geneva talks. There is, he observes in the Wall Street Journal, "an almost universally accepted misconception: that previous American administrations refused to negotiate with Iranian leaders." In fact, he argues, quoting Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, "'every administration since 1979 has reached out to the Iranians in one way or another and all have failed.'"
  • Iran Currently Constitutionally Bound to Violate the Non-Proliferation Treaty  The Non-Proliferation Treaty, writes Matthias Küntzel  in the Wall Street Journal, was a bid to stabilize the international order, signed by Shah Mohammed Reza. The Islamic Republic that replaced him, both by law and by political will in the form of Ayatollah Khomenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has declared it "wants to abolish this 'Satanic' secular world order and replace it with a Sharia-based system of Islamic rule." Thus, Küntzel argues, although he does not explicitly advocate regime change, '[t]he opposition to the treaty's lofty intentions is not just politically affirmed but legally enshrined ... [a]s long as Iran is ruled by Khomenei's doctrine."
  • Lesson of the Summer: Ditch the Niceties  "The post-election protests this summer," write Andrew Albertson and Ali Scotten in the Washington Post, "and the regime's subsequent crackdown have undermined whatever merit the administration may have once seen in a realpolitik negotiations strategy." The administration can't "pretend that the violence in the streets never happened." Better, instead, "to raise the stakes by broadening the [Geneva] agenda to include human rights." Washington hasn't succeeded on its own thus far, but "[b]y broadening ... support for the aspirations of ordinary Iranians, the Obama administration can ... add pressure on the Iranian regime, enhance domestic political support for talks and maximize the opportunity for successful negotiations."
  • What Iranian Leaders Truly Fear  Washington Post's Anne Applebaum thinks it's all about getting the right leverage, and sanctions just aren't that scary. "[A] sustained and well-funded human rights campaign," however, "must be a terrifying prospect." And never mind the idea that the Iranian government would "cry 'foreign meddling' ... They do that already."
what if we told the Iranian regime that its insistence on pursuing nuclear weapons leaves us with no choice but to increase funding for dissident exile groups, smuggle money into the country, bombard Iranian airwaves with anti-regime television and, above all, to publicize widely the myriad crimes of the Islamic Republic? What if President Obama held up a photograph of Neda, the young girl murdered by Iranian police last summer ... at every news conference?
  • Regime Change Really Would Help  Think-tanker Robert Kagan in the Washington Post doesn't just want the threat of regime change--he wants real regime change. "There is good reason," he explains, "to believe that a democratic Iran might forgo a nuclear weapon--just as a democratizing Russia abandoned long-standing Soviet foreign and defense strategies--or at least be more amenable to serious negotiations." Plus, he continues, "we have much less to fear from a nuclear weapon in the hands of a democratic Iran integrated into the liberal democratic world than from a weapon in the hands of Ahmadinejad."
  • Talk Only Buys Iran Time--Play Hardball American Spectator's Peter Ferrara is on board with Kagan: "The only way to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons is through a policy of regime change." So strike the nuclear facilities and ship in arms to the rebels. "Iran will retaliate, you say? Our diplomatic message should be that such retaliation will be met with decapitation of the government, including turning the Holy City of Qom housing the Grand Ayatollah Khatami into an archeological site."
  • What We Need, We're Not Likely to Get Without Serious Leverage  Most of the calls for regime change assume that the United States is unlikely to get what it wants and needs through talk or through sanctions. Is that true? Think-tanker, academic, and arms control blogger Jeffrey Lewis argues that the international community "needs regular, intrusive access to Iran’s centrifuge workshops and other suspect sites. And it needs access to Iran’s personnel, including those who worked in what is believed to have been a clandestine program at Lavizan-Shian in Tehran." Meanwhile, arms control and Iran specialists Gary Milhollin and Valerie Lincy argue in the New York Times that the plant at Qum is doubtless only one of many such sites, and "[a]ll must be found." That means getting Iran to fork over "a complete map of its nuclear sites, together with a history [of them] ... that means getting access to scientists, records, equipment and sites." Is that likely? "It is a lot to ask," acknolwedge Milhollin and Lincy, "and we may not have the leverage to get it. But anything less will provide no protection against what we now know is Iran’s determination to build the bomb."