Much has been said and written about the Iran nuclear deal, including in this newspaper. Much more will be written and said in the next two months as Congress debates whether to approve the agreement signed Tuesday, July 14.
We’re not experts on geopolitics, nuclear physics or internal Iranian politics, but we have a few thoughts to keep in mind as the war of words over the deal rages on multiple fronts:
- President Barack Obama is right that this agreement includes the toughest inspection and verification regime in history. On the other hand, that’s not saying much. The precedents are the U.S.-Soviet strategic arms treaties, which relied far more on trust than verification, as befits a deal between two superpowers; Iraq, where inspectors were continually denied access and failed to discover that there was nothing to see; and North Korea, where inspectors didn’t stop or even slow the development of nuclear weapons.
- Obama is right that nuclear arms agreements always are made with enemies we don’t trust, and they’re always open to criticism on that basis. Such deals are leaps of faith backed by verification systems. On the other hand, it’s odd that deal supporters want to take Iran’s leaders at their word when they say they won’t develop nuclear weapons, but we’re supposed to ignore continuing Iranian vows to destroy Israel and chants of “Death to America.”
- Just as U.S. arms control agreements with the Soviet Union didn’t attempt to settle all issues between the nations, the White House is right that separating its prime objective — delaying if not stopping Iran’s military nuclear program — from other serious issues is a reasonable approach. Thus, the deal excludes Iran’s support for terrorists, its regional aggressions, its hateful rhetoric, its suppression of human rights, and its holding of three or four American hostages.
On the other hand, if those issues of Western interest were excluded, the United States and its allies never should have allowed the unrelated arms and ballistic missile embargoes to become part of the deal. The end of those embargoes, meant to punish aggressive behavior, is a big victory for Iran and cost it nothing.
- Obama is right that the international community would not have continued strict sanctions on Iran forever. On the other hand, it makes no sense to believe that the same nations we couldn’t trust to maintain the sanctions will agree to snap those sanctions back into place if Iran is caught cheating on this deal. Once the sanctions are lifted, they’re not coming back.
- The debate over this agreement shouldn’t be partisan; it should be based on what the agreement says. It was disappointing that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and many Republican leaders rushed to criticize the deal before they could read it; Netanyahu’s now-famous assessment of the deal as a “historic mistake” came before it was unveiled. Organizations such as the American Jewish Committee deserve praise for responding with caution rather than wrath.
On the other hand, the response of J Street makes it appear less interested in being “the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans” and more interested in keeping pro-Israel Americans voting for Democrats. How else to explain J Street’s readiness within 24 hours to announce a $2 million PR campaign on behalf of a deal opposed by the full spectrum of Israeli political parties? J Street argues that its polling shows overwhelming support for the deal among American Jews, but that poll used leading, hypothetical questions weeks before the agreement was completed. J Street was planning to support any deal that came out of Vienna.
- It’s wrong of Obama to declare that opponents have offered no alternative to this deal and to present the situation as a simple choice between his deal and war. The alternatives included a better deal and no deal, letting sanctions run as long as possible and relying on the inspection terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Iran signed in 1970 and which the administration has pointed to as blocking Iran’s path to a nuclear bomb even when this agreement phases out. Sanctions put the pressure on Iran to negotiate, and the longer the talks went on, the more the pressure should have mounted to accept tougher terms, including something like the “anywhere, anytime” inspections Obama promised but didn’t deliver. But the president, entering his final year and a half in office, felt more pressure to secure a deal and wasn’t willing to walk away.
On the other hand, it’s now a done deal. Obama made that clear when he promised to veto any congressional resolution against the agreement. The Republican-led Congress is likely to reject the deal but without veto-proof majorities, and it will probably act after the U.N. Security Council approves the agreement and the removal of sanctions.
The worst outcome at this point is for Congress to reject the deal and overturn an Obama veto. That action would kill the deal and would make the United States the villain on the world stage. Russia, China, Europe and the United Nations would drop the sanctions immediately instead of in phases, and Iran would have its hundreds of billions of dollars and its oil sales to prop up its economy and support its terrorist friends while charging ahead with its nuclear program.
That’s the best outcome for Iran and could be motivating Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, Iran’s supreme leader, to keep declaring hatred for the United States and Israel and to keep promising support for Hezbollah, Hamas, Yemen’s Houthis, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and others.
We won’t know for years whether this agreement is historic, as supporters and critics have claimed, and whether it prevents a nuclear-armed Iran or moves Tehran toward or away from a place as a responsible member of the international community. We don’t know whether we’ll remember this as the time when nuclear catastrophe in the Middle East was averted or, as we fear, when a Middle East nuclear arms race began in earnest as Iran’s Arab rivals raced to join it on the nuclear threshold.
But we know right now that Secretary of State John Kerry succeeded in closing off all options; rather than waste time arguing over what could have been, it’s time to prepare for all the possible results.