Many of the same folks who promoted the Iraq invasion have long urged the United States to let loose the dogs of war with pre-emptive military action against Iran – or to green-light Israeli strikes.
The Obama administration wisely has resisted, opting for a “dual-track” strategy – crippling sanctions and an offer of negotiations, making it clear that sanctions would continue so long as Iran refused to address international concerns about its nuclear program.
That strategy now may pay off, with the promise of reversing three decades of quasi-war since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The harsh sanctions of the past four years against Iran’s oil sector and access to international banking brought Iran to the bargaining table.
Iran on Sunday signed a “first step” agreement with the so-called P5+1 partners: the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia and China, plus Germany.
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This development should not be oversold. It is a six-month confidence builder after 34 years of mistrust and suspicion. Iran agreed to halt the progress of its nuclear program, with significantly greater monitoring than in the past by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The United States and its partners agreed to “limited, temporary, targeted, and reversible relief” worth $7 billion of the current $100 billion Iran loses each year from sanctions. The overwhelming bulk of the sanctions remain in place, including all the hardships imposed by the U.N. Security Council.
Iran has agreed to suspend all enrichment of uranium above 5 percent. Civilian nuclear reactors typically use 3.5 percent to 5 percent enriched uranium. Iran also will not commission or fuel the Arak reactor.
Most significantly, Iran has agreed to convert its entire stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium, which it began producing in 2010, to below 5 percent. The international community has been concerned that the stockpile might be enriched to the 90 percent level needed to produce a bomb.
As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry put it: “Iran today has about 200 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium; in six months, Iran will have zero.” That’s an important rollback of Iran’s nuclear program.
Does the six-month agreement dismantle Iran’s nuclear capacity? No. It essentially freezes things in place, before proceeding to next steps. If the Iranians keep their side of the bargain, those next steps can come. If they don’t, the sanctions ratchet up again.
As Kerry has rightly noted, the next phase of the negotiations will be even more difficult. But they hold the potential of a greater payoff.
Much has been made of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s opposition to the agreement. But Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli military intelligence chief and the head of the Institute for National Security Studies, told Israeli reporters that this six-month agreement “was neither the dream agreement nor the fall of the Third Temple.” It is a much-needed test of Iranian good faith.
Unfortunately, the drumbeat of war has continued in Congress. The House passed more sanctions legislation, House Resolution 850, in July on a 400-20 vote. The Senate is considering following suit.
However, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who leads the Senate intelligence committee, has urged caution on approving even harsher sanctions: “It would blow things apart. If you want a war, that is the thing to do.” The agreement, she said, “should not be undermined by additional sanctions at this time.”
Kerry has made it clear that the agreement goes beyond Ronald Reagan’s “trust but verify” aphorism: “None of this is based on trust. It’s not a question of trust. It’s a question of having the verification and the intrusive inspections,” he said on Sunday.
A six-month period freezing Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for very small sanctions relief certainly is preferable to war – and potentially a promising way to move past decades of distrust.