Figuring out how I feel about the Iran deal has been a struggle. But, as I have read more about it and talked with informed people over the summer, I come to the conclusion that, while the deal is far from perfect, it is a worthwhile step to take.
Opponents complain that the deal leaves open a path to nuclear weapons in 10 or 15 years. But buying time for ten or 15 years is no small accomplishment even if it doesn’t fully resolve the Iranian nuclear dilemma and doesn’t address significant collateral issues.
Iran’s march to a nuclear weapon over the last decade has been fierce. Two years ago, when the negotiation process began, Iran’s technology was well advanced, and its “breakout time” for having a bomb was a scant two months. Iran has gone from having 136 centrifuges to 19,000. The agreement would bring it back down to 5000, and those will be under supervision by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA,) The deal would also reduce Iran’s stockpile of 12,000 kilograms of uranium to 30. Its plutonium reactor, already operational, will be largely shut down and concrete poured into its core.
Sanctions are not supposed to be lifted until Iran is in compliance with this agreement, so a key question is verification. (Recent IAEA reports note there are already problems in Iranian unmet promises under the interim agreement.) No sane individual would trust Iran, and Iran negotiated a 24-day notification before having to admit UN inspectors on site of its nuclear facilities. But former Secretary of State Colin Powell, nuclear weapons specialists, other members of the intelligence community and the Obama administration claim confidence that 24/7 technological monitoring will get the job done. Any violations should be met with increased sanctions, snapbacks (of sanctions) and, if necessary, military force.
Other legitimate worries are centered in Iran’s habit of supporting terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah, its defense of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and the threat it poses to Israel, all of which activities can be exacerbated by renewed access to money frozen by sanctions. But, as former Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns wrote recently in the NY Times, this deal was only about Iran’s most dire threat, its nuclear capacity.
At this point, no critic of the deal, not even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has come up with a viable alternative to this deal to halt Iran’s deployment of a nuclear weapon, short of preparing to go to war right now. We don’t give up the possibility of war down the road if the deal doesn’t work. And, with proper monitoring and other regional strategies, it just might work.
Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass has laid out some steps that, if adopted, could strengthen the likelihood that the nuclear agreement would achieve its larger goals. Existing sanctions linked to human rights violations will be maintained. Increased military assistance to Iran’s neighbors should be provided, especially to Israel. A follow-up agreement would be negotiated among all signers to eliminate Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium. The administration would provide semi-annual reports to Congress on Iran’s destabilizing regional activities, human rights violations at home and compliance with the nuclear agreement.
It appears that Congress doesn’t have the votes to block the deal, and the Russians, Chinese and Europeans are drooling over economic opportunities they expect in the wake of lifting sanctions. But, ironically, this may not be a done deal in Iran.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei last week said the terms for lifting sanctions were not acceptable to him. He wants sanctions to be outright lifted, rather than being suspended conditional upon Iran’s compliance, and, if he doesn’t get his way, he says Iran would not abide by the nuclear agreement. He says he’s turning over the final decision to the Majlis, the Iranian legislature, where he exercises considerable influence and which includes many hardline opponents.
If the Majlis accepts the terms but Khamenei does not, doesn’t this give him wiggle room to reneg on other parts? The Obama administration simply can’t cave on the ability to “snap back” sanctions on Iran for violation of the agreement. Simply put, the President can’t make this another Syria-type red line that can’t be crossed – until it is. Resolution of this issue can’t be left to chance and alleged good faith of the parties.
I’d like to think that time is now on our side. Consider these statistics, from globalpost.com. Forty-one percent of Iran’s population is under 25. Over half of those aged between 18 and 24 attend some form of higher education, and 45 percent of all Iranians go online. Approval of this deal is higher among younger, more moderate Iranians than among the Old Guard. Buying time for a decade or more, allowing for more interaction between Iran and the rest of the world and especially the United States, could provide opportunities to dial back Iran’s support of terrorism and, in the long run, actually enhance our security and, I would submit, that of Israel as well. If it does not, then we aren’t any worse off than we are now, and probably better. In this case something, it seems, is better than nothing. But we must be able to verify before trusting.
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