Get a grip, people.
President Barack Obama is touting the framework deal with Iran as the diplomatic triumph of the century while its critics claim it threatens Israel, us, and the world.
Could everyone please take a deep breath?
The deal’s historic value won’t be determined before many key missing pieces are (or aren’t) fleshed out in ongoing talks, or before we see if Iran agrees to these conditions. We won’t know whether the deal will burnish Obama’s weak foreign policy legacy before we see the final version by the June 30 deadline, or even later.
But we do know this: Although the framework is imperfect and compromises were made, the U.S. negotiators got more out of Iran than many expected. If adequately fleshed out, this deal holds the potential to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuke for two decades or longer. So it’s time for congressional hawks to stop trying to kill any deal by imposing new sanctions while talks continue.
Last week, I proposed four rules by which to judge an Iran deal. Let’s use these rules to evaluate what’s been achieved so far.
▪ Rule One. It’s vital to weigh the risks of a deal against the security costs of no deal (this is a separate issue from whether a deal can be improved).
Already, many critics of the framework accord claim it would be preferable to tighten sanctions and demand that Iran dismantle its program completely. That won’t happen. And if we look at history, while sanctions drove Iran to the table, they didn’t stop the ayatollahs from building more and better centrifuges to enrich uranium. That enrichment program has effectively been frozen while talks continue and would be radically shrunk by the proposed deal.
On the other hand, imposing more sanctions now would push Tehran to abandon talks and start those centrifuges spinning again, while increasing their numbers and sophistication. This in turn would increase pressure on Israel and Washington to contemplate military strikes on Iran, starting a new Mideast war with an unpredictable ending.
Military strikes might set Iran’s nuclear program back a couple of years. But they would surely convince Iran’s leaders that they needed to move beyond the nuclear threshold and actually make a bomb, a decision they don’t appear to have made.
▪ Rule Two. There is no perfect deal. The debate is over whether a deal is acceptable.
The United States (along with the other negotiating nations: Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany) is trying to ensure that Iran has no path to building a bomb for at least 15 years, possibly longer.
Iran has agreed, among other concessions, to reduce the number of its centrifuges by two-thirds, and to reduce its large stockpile of low-enriched uranium from 10,000 kilograms to 300. It will also redesign its Arak research reactor so it no longer has the capacity to produce plutonium fuel for a bomb.
Most important, Tehran will accept an unprecedented regime of international inspections for every aspect of its nuclear energy program; these will hopefully ensure that, if the Iranians tried to break out or sneak out of a deal, it would take them a year, during which time they would be discovered. Many of these intense inspections are supposed to continue for two decades or indefinitely.
Yes, there were worrying compromises in the framework, like the continued operation of the deep underground facility at Fordow, which may be bombproof. Any nuclear enrichment activities will be banned at Fordow for 15 years, and it will be under inspection even after then. But far better had it been closed.
And yes, there are unanswered questions and vague phrases in the framework that are nervous-making. Examples: How quickly will U.S. and international sanctions on Iran be lifted? And we don’t yet know on what basis they could be “snapped back” if Iran is found in violation, and for how long this protection will be permitted. Nor do we know whether Iran must come clean about suspected past work on nuclear weaponization before it gets sanctions relief.
Yet, when taken as a whole, this framework appears to hold the potential to meet the number-one priority of the talks – preventing Iran from building nuclear weapons for at least 15 years, and probably longer. The alternatives proposed by critics seem far more likely to push Iran to the nuclear threshold – and perhaps to a bomb.
▪ Rule Three. Don’t expect a nuclear deal to improve Iran’s behavior in the region. Israel, Sunni Arab states, and American critics of a deal argue that an end to sanctions will provide Iran with the wealth to act more aggressively. Perhaps. But an end to talks won’t improve Iranian behavior, and an Iran with a bomb would be even more threatening to the region. The trade-offs here are tricky, but they must be thought through clearly, not through an emotional haze.
▪ Rule Four. If a deal is not at hand, keep talking.
It may prove dicey to close this deal. But so long as the two sides are at the table, Iran will likely stick to a temporary freeze on its program. In the meantime, Obama would do well to assuage Congress by being more forthcoming in briefings.
There is no perfect outcome to this process, but a decent deal is far preferable to the alternative if talks fail.
Trudy Rubin’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.