By Roger Cohen
July 16, 2015
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel calls it a “historic mistake” that permits Iran “a sure path to nuclear weapons.” A minister in his government, unable to resist outrageous hyperbole, calls it “one of the darkest days in world history.” Jeb Bush, doing the tired Chamberlain-Obama number, dismisses it as “appeasement.”
So what do the critics, from Republican presidential hopefuls to the Israeli government, seek in place of the deal with Iran that verifiably blocks Tehran’s path to a nuclear weapon for at least the next 10 to 15 years? Presumably, they want what would have happened if negotiations had collapsed. That would be renewed war talk as an unconstrained Iran installs sophisticated centrifuges, its stockpile of enriched uranium grows, Russia and China abandon the sanctions regime, moderates in Iran like Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif are sidelined, and a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic draws closer.
To favour such peril, when a constructive alternative exists that engages one of the most highly educated societies in the Middle East, amounts to foolishness dressed up as machismo.
The Iran nuclear deal is not perfect, nor was it ever intended to address the long list of American-Iranian grievances, which will persist. It must be judged on what it set out to do — stop Iran going nuclear — not on whether Iran has a likeable regime (it does not) or does bad things (it does). President Obama did not set out to change Iran but he has created a framework that, over a decade, might.
If implemented, the agreement constitutes the most remarkable American diplomatic achievement since the Dayton Accords put an end to the Bosnian war two decades ago. It increases the distance between Iran and a bomb as it reduces the distance between Iran and the world. It makes the Middle East less dangerous by forestalling proliferation. In a cacophonous age of short-termism, it offers a lesson of stubborn leadership in pursuit of a long-term goal.
For many years, before Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry embarked on their diplomacy, Iran had been increasing its operating centrifuges and the size and enrichment level of its uranium stockpile. Now, the number of centrifuges is to be slashed by two-thirds to 5,060; the stockpile is to be all but eliminated; enrichment levels are capped at 3.7 percent, a long way from bomb grade; the potential route to weapons-grade plutonium at Arak is disabled; international inspection is redoubled and, in Obama’s words, will extend “where necessary,” “when necessary.” In return, Iran gets the phased elimination of most sanctions, the end to its pariah status, and a windfall that will alleviate its economic crisis.
And this is “one of the darkest days in world history”? No, it is a moment for guarded hope.
Iran, at 36 years from its theocratic revolution, is a repressive but pragmatic power under an aging leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose conduct in the talks saw his anti-American instincts counterbalanced by understanding of a reform imperative. Iran is finely poised between a tough old guard forged in revolution and its aspirational, Westward-looking youth. A decade is a long time in societies in transition. It is far better to have deep American-Iranian differences — over Hezbollah, over Syria, over regional Shiite irredentism, over Iran’s vile anti-Israel outbursts — addressed through dialogue rather than have Iran do its worst as pariah.
This accord has the merit of condemning the United States and Tehran to a relationship — however hostile — over the next 15 years. The Middle East, several of its states irremediably fractured, needs a new security framework. This will take years. But to imagine it could ever be fashioned without Iran’s involvement is fantasy. Meanwhile, the West and Iran have a common enemy: the medieval slaughterers of Islamic State. Whether concerted action will result from a shared objective is unclear, but the possibility is there.
Many possibilities have been opened by this accord. They include the doomsayers’ vision of a dissembling, newly solvent Iran at work to subversive, anti-American ends. Strict verification is imperative. But Congress should think twice before the feel-good, reckless adoption of a resolution condemning a deal that advances American interests. Obama would veto it, and almost certainly has the votes to resist an override, but this would be a regrettable way for the nation to assume such a ground-shifting agreement. The president is right to invoke the bold accords of past presidents — both Republicans — with hostile regimes in Beijing and Moscow. Neither was risk-free. Both proved transformative — not only of bilateral relations but the entire world.
Israel, too, should ask the hard questions rather than dismiss a deal that puts Iran much further from a bomb, empowers Iranian reformists, locks in American-Iranian dialogue and will be leveraged by Netanyahu to secure more advanced American weapons systems. The darkest days in history for the Jewish people were of an altogether different order. They should never be trivialized.