Editorial: A big step to stop Iran’s nuclear bomb ambitions

Secretary of State John Kerry, center, watches on a tablet Thursday in Switzerland as President Barack Obama talks about a framework Kerry helped negotiate on Iran’s nuclear program.
Secretary of State John Kerry, center, watches on a tablet Thursday in Switzerland as President Barack Obama talks about a framework Kerry helped negotiate on Iran’s nuclear program. The Associated Press

The final details obviously matter on the Iran nuclear deal, especially how it would be enforced and monitored.

Still, moving forward on the tentative framework announced Thursday is far more promising than the alternatives – giving up on diplomacy and increasing sanctions, or launching a military strike that could lead to a wider war in the Middle East.

President Barack Obama said the deal could be a “historic understanding” to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons if a final, comprehensive agreement is signed and if it is “fully implemented.”

Those are big “ifs” that will be the focus of debate in the coming weeks. What was announced Thursday by Iran, the U.S. and five other world powers after marathon negotiations in Switzerland was an agreement on “key parameters” the president said would cut off every path to a nuclear bomb.

Iran would convert a reactor so it doesn’t produce weapons-grade plutonium and would give up two-thirds of its centrifuges that enrich uranium. It would reduce its existing stockpile of uranium and shut down an underground enrichment facility at Fordow, which is shielded from military attack. And Iran would allow international inspectors to have regular access to its nuclear facilities and to monitor the entire nuclear supply chain.

If Iran complies with these measures, international economic sanctions would be lifted. But they could be reinstituted if Iran violates the agreement.

“This deal is not based on trust,” the president said. “It’s based on unprecedented verification. ... If Iran cheats, the world will know it.”

A key measure is how long it would take Iran to produce enough material for a nuclear weapon – or put another way, how much lead time the international community would have to detect violations and act. Obama said this “breakout” time would go from two to three months now to at least one year for the first decade under the agreement.

Iran would be freed from many of the limits after 15 years, though inspections would continue.

There’s a new June 30 deadline to work out the all-important technical details and draft a final agreement. Even before then, Iran’s negotiators will have to convince hard-liners in Tehran, and the Obama administration will have to put the hard sell on Congress.

Congress can, and should, play a constructive role. Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein of California both gave an initial thumbs-up to the framework.

But Republican leaders quickly focused on what they see as flaws. Those calling for more sanctions on Iran should hold off and wait to see the final agreement. And critics can’t just say “no”; they must offer a better – and plausible – option.

Rep. Ed Royce, a Fullerton Republican who is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told CNN that while he has many concerns about a deal, he will explore them in a bipartisan way. That would be a good change from the in-your-face invitation orchestrated by House Speaker John Boehner to let Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu use a speech to a joint session of Congress to criticize Obama for pursuing this deal.

As Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday, this agreement should be evaluated realistically. It’s not whether Iran capitulates and completely gives up its nuclear program, which it says is for civilian purposes. Instead, the real question is whether it would make the world safer.