Eighteen months of tough negotiations, twice extended, have yielded a framework agreement to cap Iran’s nuclear program. Final details remain to be worked out by a June 30 deadline, but what is available is encouraging. If this deal succeeds, it will remove a source of great instability in the Middle East and could facilitate Iran’s building of a new relationship with the rest of the world. Opponents remain unconvinced and skepticism is a good thing. Nevertheless, they have yet to articulate an alternative policy that makes sense. That remains the bottom line for any deal.
The agreement reached after eight days of talks in Lausanne, Switzerland, obliges Tehran to cut by two-thirds its supply of centrifuges, and keep only its earliest-generation centrifuges. Iran will enrich uranium to just 3.67 percent, a level far below that necessary to make a nuclear weapon, and will reduce its stockpile of enriched uranium by 97 percent. The core of the reactor at Arak, which could produce plutonium (another pathway to a bomb), will be dismantled and replaced and the spent fuel will be shipped out of the country.
Iran also promised to give the International Atomic Energy Agency access to all its nuclear facilities and to its nuclear supply chain. In return, the United States, the European Union and the United Nations will lift all nuclear-related sanctions once Iran is deemed to have honored its half of the deal. Other sanctions, such as those pertaining to terrorism, human rights abuses and non-nuclear weapons will remain.
Western negotiators believe this deal will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear bomb; they claim that it increases the time for nuclear “breakout” from the current two to three months to a year. If Iran is found to be cheating, sanctions can be reimposed. For Iran, the agreement allows it to continue its nuclear energy program — a right under the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty — and lifts sanctions that have crippled its economy and paves the way toward a rapprochement between Tehran and the rest of the world.
U.S. President Barack Obama called the deal a “historic understanding,” while Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said it was “a first step toward productive interactions with the world.” All involved concede, however, that more work is to be done.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately blasted the agreement, saying it “would threaten the survival of Israel … would legitimize Iran’s nuclear program, bolster Iran’s economy and increase Iran’s aggression and terror throughout the Middle East and beyond.” Finally, he warned that it “would increase the risks of nuclear proliferation in the region and the risks of a horrific war.” He demanded that any final deal oblige Tehran to recognize Israel’s right to exist.
Fears about the impact of this agreement extend beyond Israel. Saudi Arabia worries too about nuclear proliferation, but just as troubling for the government in Riyadh is the prospect of Iran escaping the diplomatic isolation that it has endured for a decade or more. Like other Sunni-majority states in the region, Saudi Arabia worries that a newly integrated Iran would shift the balance of power within the Muslim world. Similarly, Saudi Arabia, along with Egypt and Turkey, fear that Tehran could emerge as a more legitimate regional power and a partner with the U.S. that ultimately reduces their influence.
Much depends on the final deal that is reached this summer. Given the celebrations that greeted news of the deal in Tehran, the Iranian public backs an agreement. So, too, do conservatives in Iran, including supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. International oil markets anticipate success: The price of crude fell on expectations that Iran would resume exports.
The most fervent opposition, outside Israel, comes from conservatives in the U.S., particularly — but not only — in the Republican Party who demand a vote on the agreement, and have warned the Iranian leadership that a future U.S. president could reject the deal. In fact, the U.S. president cannot unilaterally lift sanctions against Iran, so Congress has a say in the disposition of any agreement. Obama has warned, however, that Congress should recognize the stakes: If the agreement fails, the world must see that the fault lies in Tehran. The U.S. must not be blamed for the failure of diplomacy because then the international coalition against Iran would collapse and there would be even less constraint on Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Ultimately, that is the biggest failure of opponents of this agreement. They have no credible alternative. They want tighter scrutiny and tougher terms but they offer no way to achieve those outcomes. They talk blithely of military strikes with no recognition of the consequences: a failure to hit all Iranian facilities, the uniting of Iran behind a myth of implacable Western hostility, the end of diplomatic engagement and the shattering of the international unity that creates leverage against Tehran. Diplomacy appears to be working. More importantly, there is no other option.
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