LINCOLN — Americans of a certain age will never forget the images from Iran in November 1979, when 52 U.S. embassy employees were taken hostage and held for 444 days. The Iranian revolution and this act of international terror resulted in a complete breakdown in relations between the United States and Iran.

We are all too aware of Iran’s transgressions in the ensuing years: support for terrorists and despotic regimes in neighboring countries, threats against Israel, vitriolic rants and Holocaust denial by their former president and, most alarmingly, a nuclear enrichment program of a size and scale that many feared signaled an intention to develop nuclear weapons.

The international community properly reacted with stringent economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure, and this strategy has begun to pay dividends. Last year, the Iranian people elected the most moderate of the available presidential candidates, Hassan Rouhani, who immediately made diplomatic overtures to the U.S. and signaled a willingness to enter into talks over their nuclear program.

The Obama administration and Secretary of State John Kerry have cautiously responded, with negotiations resulting in a temporary and minor easing of economic pressure for six months, while the negotiations are under way.

The president has made it clear that if those negotiations do not succeed in the elimination of the Iranian nuclear threat, verified by rigorous international supervision, the economic sanctions will be increased. But right now, this initiative is the best chance we have to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. It is being carried out by capable diplomats with an unwavering commitment to U.S. interests and Israeli security. They deserve our full support.

Unfortunately, a number of U.S. lawmakers – including Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins – mistakenly feel that the best way to stop a nuclear-armed Iran and defend Israel is to defy the administration and push for new sanctions now.

They introduced a bill that would ratchet up sanctions despite Iran’s involvement in serious negotiations. This would seriously threaten the position of Rouhani’s government and strengthen the hand of Iranian hardliners, putting us right back on a path to increased Iranian nuclear capacity.

Just a few weeks ago, passage of that bill seemed likely, and although President Obama has promised a veto, the resulting political discord would certainly undermine our negotiating position.

The reasoning behind the bill, that if sanctions brought Iran to the table, increasing them now should buy us a better deal, is flawed – diplomacy doesn’t work that way. The sanctions succeeded in compelling Iran to negotiate, but adding more now would have the opposite effect.

Iran is keeping its end of last year’s interim agreement, beginning to roll back its program for the first time under the supervision of international inspectors. If we break our word by increasing sanctions, we will empower Iranian hardliners who have insisted that we are less interested in cooperation than we are in punishing the Iranian people.

This would give Iran an excuse to quit the talks and weaken our relationships with our international partners, who would blame us for undermining the negotiations. If those partners determine that we aren’t serious about diplomacy, they could dissolve our coalition entirely and allow the economic pressure on Iran to wane.

Thankfully, Maine independent Sen. Angus King recognized the urgency of the situation, and in an eloquent New York Times op-ed with Sen. Carl Levin, made the clear case against this bill and for a rational approach to the negotiations.

“Instead of slowing Iran’s nuclear program,” they wrote, “such legislation could actually accelerate its quest for atomic weapons, leaving a stark choice: Either accept the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran, or use military force to stop it.”

Those of us who are enthusiastic and unwavering supporters of Israel, but who prefer diplomatic over military solutions are grateful for Sen. King’s political courage and leadership on this issue. And opposition from King and others has had an impact – some of the bill’s original sponsors are now calling for its delay.

While there will be plenty of time to increase sanctions if Iran proves uncooperative, as long as they appear to be negotiating in good faith, so must we. There is simply no other way to stop Iran from getting a weapon. For the sake of peace and security for the Middle East and the world, we must give diplomacy a chance.

— Special to the Press Herald