News & Politics

Why a Nuclear Agreement With Iran Is the Right Choice

This deal has the potential to be a historic step forward.

The full-page ad in this week’s Washington Post portraying President Obama as history’s favorite whipping boy, Neville Chamberlain, was wrong in nearly every one of its many strident particulars.

It was wrong in suggesting that a nuclear agreement with Iran is appeasement. It was wrong in comparing Iran with Nazi Germany. It was wrong to argue that Iran “has control over five Middle Eastern capitals.” It was wrong to suggest counter-intuitively that a deal somehow allows Iran to “become a nuclear power.”

But on one thing it was right: The current choice posed by the pending agreement with Iran couldn’t be clearer.

Rare are the moments in foreign policy when enormously complex situations lend themselves to unambiguous yes-or-no answers. The ad, sponsored by the anodyne-sounding World Values Network, is an expensive effort to persuade readers to say no to an agreement with Iran, the preliminary framework for which negotiators successfully negotiated in Switzerland today.

For those of us in the United States who believe that principled diplomatic engagement with Iran is the path to peace and stability in the Middle East — a majority of the population, according to polls, but not necessarily a majority of Congress — the answer is an unambiguous yes. The preliminary agreement, which represents a significant compromise by both sides, is indeed a historic step forward.

After all, this is more than just a nuclear agreement. It’s more than just a way to usher Iran back into the international community. It’s more even than a foundation stone for regional peace and stability (an aspiration that seems to become ever more elusive each day).

The deal now on the table ultimately represents a referendum on the Obama administration’s overall foreign policy. On one side are those who favor long, patient, and often frustrating negotiations. On the other side are those who favor conflict, rollback, and even war.

“We won’t buy the same horse twice,” opponents of negotiations with North Korea would often say when facing the prospect of Pyongyang offering once again to freeze its nuclear program in exchange for some package deal. When it comes to the Middle East, the horseshoe is on the other foot. We bought the warhorse once already with the disastrous campaign in Iraq.

And that’s exactly what the opponents of the Iran deal are offering again by portraying Iran as Nazi Germany and any Western leader that shrinks from attacking this evil entity as a latter-day Chamberlain figure. It’s the argument of the full-page ad, recent op-eds by John Bolton in the New York Times and Joshua Muravchik in the Washington Post, the current Israeli government, a range of well-funded organizations in the United States, and a large number of congressional representatives that follow their lead.

Fortunately, virtually the whole world is against them. And history is leaving them behind.

The Devil and the Details

The negotiations between the P5+1 (the UN Security Council members plus Germany) and Iran were extended a couple days to reach a compromise. The Parameters for a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action regarding the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Nuclear Program is not be the final agreement, only the outline of a framework agreement. Further negotiations will fill in the details before all sides sign a final agreement by June 30.

The two sides managed to resolve the outstanding disagreements that pushed negotiations past the interim deadline. Two of the major sticking points had to do with centrifuges and stockpiles.

To enrich uranium, Iran constructed approximately 19,000 centrifuges. The Iranian negotiators have argued that they need to retain a part of this complex for research and development, to generate medical isotopes, and so on. The original U.S. position was that Iran should get rid of them all. The compromise position in the agreement is 6,104 centrifuges, down from an estimated 10,000 that are currently in operation. Approximately 5,000 of these centrifuges will continue to enrich for the next 10 years.

Bomb-grade uranium requires enrichment to at least 90 percent. Iran had managed to accumulate a stockpile of enriched uranium in the 20-percent range. The agreement set a ceiling on enrichment at 3.67 percent for the next 15 years.

Iran also agreed to reduce its 10,000 kilos of material to a very low 300 kilos for 15 years. And Iran has agreed not to build any additional enrichment facilities for the next 15 years.

There has been much talk about “break-out” time. This is the time it would take for Iran to acquire enough highly enriched uranium to make one bomb, currently estimated to be 2-3 months. Negotiators managed to extend this window to one year, to be maintained for the next 10 years.

This figure is misleading, however. It doesn’t take into account weaponizing, testing, and miniaturizing for the purposes of constructing a warhead for a missile. In reality, any freeze on Iranian nuclear capabilities would extend by several years the date by which Iran could have a hypothetical nuclear weapon and the means to deliver it if it chose to pursue one.

Another sticking point is what Iran gets for its willingness to freeze and roll back its program. Tehran wanted oil and financial sanctions lifted immediately. The United States favored phasing out sanctions and maintaining a “snap back” option so that sanctions go back into force if Iran is found to be out of compliance. The agreement postpones the lifting of sanctions until Iran is found in compliance by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with its commitments. And the snap-back option is included as well, which should satisfy all but the most intransigent congressional skeptics.

Opponents of a deal have emphasized that Iran is an untrustworthy actor: the devil who speaks sweet words but plans bitter actions. Iran, they argue, has concealed its nuclear program in the past. It has not come clean or abided by previous agreements.

Iran has indeed concealed its program in the past. Just as other countries have done, like Israel for example, which still refuses to confirm its nuclear status. But it’s critical to point out as well that, according to U.S. intelligence estimates in 2007, Iran abandoned its plan to pursue a nuclear weapon in 2003, and no evidence has emerged since then to suggest otherwise. However, Iran has continued with its nuclear program for purposes permitted under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The current deal is being pursued not because the world trusts Iran on these issues, but because it doesn’t trust Iran.

Any nuclear deal will increase the level of scrutiny, inspections, and verification protocols. As for Iran’s compliance with agreements in the past, it has abided by the 2013 interim agreement. As former National Security Council staffer Gary Sick points out, Iran also held to the Algiers Accord that ended the 1979 hostage standoff. Only through additional engagement with the IAEA will we obtain more information about the questions that remain unanswered about Iran’s nuclear program in the past.

The War Party

Which brings us back to that full-page ad. It would be sensible to ignore such a screed if its arguments were not so commonplace in the public discourse, particularly among members of Congress.

The organization behind the ad, the World Values Network, is an initiative of Orthodox rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who has received funding from hardline neo-con billionaire Sheldon Adelson. It’s been pushing the “Iran is Nazi” meme for some time, and Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu echoed this theme in his address to Congress earlier this year, where both Adelson and Boteach applauded from the front of the House gallery.

But if the Iranian government were so intent on exterminating the world’s Jews, which the ad maintains, it would probably have started already with the 10,000 or so Jews who live in Iran, the largest community in the Middle East outside of Israel. But the Jewish community in Iran is not under threat of death. Although the community does experience some discrimination, it also practices its religion freely.

The ad goes on to make four demands.

The first three involve adding elements to a nuclear agreement that have nothing to do with nuclear issues: end threats against Israel, stop terrorism, cease stoning of women and hanging of gays. I’d like to see progress on those issues, but in this context they are non-starters, designed simply to push negotiations off the rails. If an agreement on the nuclear question can be reached, then the United States and other countries can start to raise these issues and others, either as part of another set of negotiations or normalization talks.

The fourth demand, to reject a deal that involves a “potentially catastrophic one-year-weapons-breakout period,” is at least germane to the nuclear talks. But it too is a non-starter. The bottom line is that if Iran wants to pursue a nuclear weapons program, it will do so, just as Israel did, out of perceived national interest. If we stop negotiations — or pursue the chimera of a “better deal” — Iran will have the option of pushing for breakout as soon as it can.

What’s potentially catastrophic, in other words, is not to bring Iran into the web of verification protocols.

Iran has influence throughout the Middle East. But it does not control five Middle Eastern capitals. This has been a popular right-wing meme, which Tom Cotton (R-AR) repeated when he appeared on Face the Nation and ticked off Tehran, Beirut, Baghdad, Damascus, and Sanaa. Iran certainly has influence in these places, but that does not amount to control. Given its close relationship with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, not to mention Egypt and Turkey, the United States could use the nuclear negotiations with Iran as a first step toward bridging the divide between Shiites and Sunnis in the region.

No one expects that an agreement will trigger an immediate transformation inside Iran any more than the arms control agreements with the Soviet Union in the 1970s turned that country into a Scandinavian paradise. But a nuclear agreement will definitely strengthen the hands of reformers inside Iran. And as in the 1970s, the stakes are high and the choice is clear.

This preliminary agreement announced today is historic news. The hardliners in both countries have been sidelined, at least temporarily. But opponents of the nuclear deal, from Sheldon Adelson to John Bolton, will continue to push for war. The choice remains stark. We either talk ourselves away from the precipice, or we plunge headlong over it.

This is an updated version of an article that first appeared on Foreign Policy In Focus.

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. His dystopian novel, Splinterlands, a Dispatch Books original (with Haymarket Books), will be published on December 6th. He is a TomDispatch regular.

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