Our differences are real, and the difficult history between our nations cannot be ignored. But it is possible to change. The path of violence and rigid ideology, a foreign policy based on threats to attack your neighbors or eradicate Israel – that’s a dead end. A different path, one of tolerance and peaceful resolution of conflict, leads to more integration into the global economy, more engagement with the international community, and the ability of the Iranian people to prosper and thrive. – President Barack Obama, July 14, 2015
For most of my life the world has been divided between hawks and doves, between those who believe superior force and military power are the only means to achieve a desired goal, and those who believe negotiation and compromise are essential to genuine peace and understanding. Hawks love to throw out terms like appeasement and capitulation whenever anything less than complete surrender is achieved, while doves believe that one-sided victories are mostly an illusion and are achieved, if at all, at extreme costs in blood and treasure.
In affairs of state, leaders of great nations must balance and weigh competing interests, assess risks, consider short-term gains and long-term objectives, examine past history and project future behavior. There is no pre-determined road map to resolving difficult conflicts. The noise of the chattering class, of media outlets and opinion makers, of politicians and pundits, must not be allowed to distract from the actual work being done by our diplomats and Foreign Service Officers around the world. A good leader must remain focused at all times on two key questions: What outcome is in the best interests of our nation? What result will make the world safer and more peaceful?
Ideology and political division often cloud the true nature of international complexities. In 1964, Richard Nixon declared on a trip to Asia that “it would be disastrous to the cause of freedom” for the United States to recognize Red China. It was a nice talking point. But eight years later, as President, when the interests of the nation and future prospects of world peace were more directly in his hands, Nixon changed course and restored diplomatic relations with China. The non-governing ideologues that opposed this move predicted doom and gloom. They believed China and communism must be defeated at all costs and that to “engage” with the Chinese would only legitimize and strengthen them.
More than four decades later, China and the world have been transformed for the better. China is not a model of democracy and liberty, but it is a legitimate member of the world of nations and the reform elements in that country have made gradual strides in loosening the oppressive nature of Chinese society. Through trade, academic exchanges, and diplomacy, China has become more open, a genuine trading partner, and a country the West can deal with. The world today is a better and safer place because of our willingness to engage in diplomacy with the Chinese, to trade with them, talk to them, and exert our influence through the positive forces of economics, art, technology, and social exchange.
Similarly, the arms control agreements between the United States and the former Soviet Union, including those entered into by Presidents Nixon, Carter, and Reagan in the 1970s and 1980s, made the world safer and helped transform relations between two of the world’s most formidable adversaries. Although mutual suspicion and hostility remain, the degree of cooperation and engagement between the United States and Russia on a host of issues is a source of hope after fifty years of Cold War hostility and a policy of mutually assured destruction.
I have been thinking of these things lately as I have reviewed the parameters of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action regarding the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Nuclear Program (“the Vienna agreement”), that was reached earlier this month between Iran and the six world powers known as the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, plus Germany). No deal is perfect and this one does not contain everything I would have liked. But I am persuaded that implementation of the Vienna agreement is in the long-term interests of the United States, our European allies, Israel and the nations of the Middle East.
The agreement should be assessed on what it aims to do – prevent Iran from obtaining or developing a nuclear weapon. The agreement requires a substantial rollback of Iran’s nuclear enrichment capabilities, reduces Iran’s nuclear (low-enriched uranium) stockpile by 98 percent, limits Iran’s ability to research and develop nuclear weapons, stops all uranium enrichment activities at Iran’s deep underground facility at Fordow, and disables Iran’s ability to produce bomb-grade plutonium at Iran’s only heavy-water reactor at Arak. The agreement imposes a stringent system of inspections and monitoring that allows for on-site inspections and installation of the most advanced surveillance technology. Meanwhile, Iran remains a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and is permanently subject to its requirements. The Vienna agreement is a responsible first step to peacefully and permanently stopping the Iranians from developing a nuclear weapon.
Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and the Republicans running for president contend that the P5+1 partners should have insisted on a better deal. But these critics do not suggest what that better deal looks like or how we obtain it. Most of the critics seem to prefer no deal to the present one. But rejecting the present agreement and achieving no agreement would ensure only that Iran escalates its nuclear program and develops nuclear weapon capabilities. Threats of war simply lend support to Iranian hard-liners, who themselves oppose the deal.
Netanyahu believes we should continue the sanctions regime, or impose even greater sanctions, until Iran capitulates and agrees to entirely dismantle all nuclear capabilities, military and civilian. He also insists that any deal require Iran to recognize Israel’s right to exist and stop supporting Hezbollah and the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. That would be wonderful, but it is wishful, unrealistic thinking. It would be nice if the Iranians baked Bibi a delicious peach pie as well. But it was not going to happen during these negotiations. To have insisted on addressing and resolving issues unrelated to the Iranian nuclear program would have been a non-starter. And no one understands that fact better than Netanyahu.
Effective negotiation requires narrowly focused goals and objectives. Although America and its allies were united on the need for sanctions to pressure Iran to come to the bargaining table, no such consensus exists that Iran must refrain from developing a civilian nuclear energy program. In the absence of a deal, we would lose our ability to sustain the existing sanctions regime, for the sanctions have not only hurt Iran’s economy, but have cost Japan, South Korea, Europe, India, Russia and China billions of dollars in trade and commerce. These nations all have closer trade ties with Iran and will not accede to continued sanctions, especially if America walks away from an agreement that Iran is willing to sign and which accomplishes most of the objectives initially sought by the West.
What the Vienna agreement does is to greatly reduce Iran’s uranium enrichment capabilities. It prevents the design and construction of any new facilities for fifteen years and extends the time it would theoretically take for Iran to acquire enough fissile materials to create a single nuclear weapon from the existing two to three months to at least one year. The agreement does not trust the Iranians to comply, but imposes strict inspection and transparency measures. Respected nuclear experts and inspectors with years of experience who have examined the deal agree it is the most intensive inspections regime in history. The agreement requires the International Atomic Energy Agency to strictly monitor Iran’s nuclear program at every level, including mining, procurement, production, and enrichment. By enabling the international community to verify compliance at every stage of the nuclear supply chain, it ensures that we can effectively detect, deter, and prevent cheating.
The deal does not address the long list of grievances Americans and others have with Iran, but is instead designed only to prevent Iran from joining the nuclear weapons club. Although the agreement has the potential to reform and improve relations between Iran and the West and to transform the Middle East, no one is counting on it.
The administration and the other P5+1 partners have taken a practical and common sense position that strongly increases the likelihood that Iran will not obtain a nuclear capability, while allowing Iran an opportunity to shed its isolated status and to re-engage with the world community in business and commerce and other ways mutually beneficial. If Iran is stupid enough to cheat, the United States retains all options, from re-imposing sanctions to the use of military force. Those options will always remain in our arsenal.
The hard-liners in Iran are invested in the status quo and fear this deal for all of the reasons the reformers have praised it. Those within Iran who would most benefit from international legitimacy and improved relations with the West, Iranian citizens who engage in business and commerce and look favorably upon western democracies, may help eventually change how Iranians think about the costs and benefits of the regime’s destabilizing activities and regional trouble making.
As Roger Cohen of The New York Times contends, the Iran nuclear deal “must be judged on what it set out to do – stop Iran going nuclear – not on whether Iran has a likable regime (it does not) or does bad things (it does).” The deal is an impressive American diplomatic achievement that “increases the distance between Iran and a bomb as it reduces the distance between Iran and the world.” The accord essentially forces America and Iran into a relationship. As Cohen notes:
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.
If recent history is any guide, we should remember the state of our relations with the former Soviet Union and China during the height of the Cold War. Presidents Nixon and Reagan moved boldly with hostile and far more dangerous regimes in Beijing and Moscow. Despite much bellowing about the decline of American power, weakness and appeasement, our engagement with those long-time enemies proved transformational for bilateral relations and the world at large.
There will always be voices – chest-thumping American hardliners – who think negotiation is a sign of weakness and that military force is decisive in a way that diplomacy is not. It is an attractive position for politicians in search of cheap ways to appear tough. But it ignores the hard work of peace and non-proliferation, the complexities of the real world, and the psychology of nation states mired in historic mistrust. The Vienna agreement presents an alternative vision of American power that stresses the importance of U.S. global leadership in addressing shared problems. Congress would be remiss if it recklessly condemns a deal that advances American interests and has the potential to reduce tensions in a part of the world that desperately needs it.
It is right to worry about the Iranians and the mischief they cause in the Middle East, its hostility to Israel, its support of Assad, and its proxy wars with Saudi Arabia. But isolating Iran and treating it as a pariah did little to discourage its bad behavior. While the Vienna agreement may not change Iranian behavior for the better, there are elements of hope. As a recent editorial in The Economist suggests, although the agreement enables Iran to become a more influential player in the Middle East,
…it will also lead the country to become more open. As in China, the Iranian theocracy rules over a population that long ago lost its revolutionary zeal. . . Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, decided that being a pariah was worse for his regime than rejoining the world.
That choice only makes sense if Iran can now attract trade and investment. The more Iran trades with the rest of the world, the more susceptible it will grow to international pressure. As the country becomes enmeshed in the global economy, interest groups will emerge within Iran’s complex, factional politics who will argue that the country’s future is better served by decent relations with foreigners than by bad ones. The more Iranians benefit from ties with the outside world, the stronger those moderating voices will become.
The Vienna agreement provides a modest glimmer of hope for a brighter future. With full membership in the international community comes implicit and subtle pressure to abide by certain norms. And although Iran will benefit economically, there will be opportunities for greater cooperation between Iran and the United States in the fight against ISIS and other regional stabilizing measures. The agreement proves that Iran and the West can coexist on terms of mutual respect, a notion that greatly undermines the position of Islamic terror organizations and strengthens reformers across the region.
But even if Iran does not shift course in an attempt to become a more responsible member of the world community, an Iran with no nuclear weapons and a greatly reduced enrichment capacity is far better than the alternative. The status quo, or no agreement, would almost guarantee that Iran has a nuclear weapon in the short term. There are no risk free options available to us. We can choose the path of diplomacy and engagement backed by strict compliance measures, or we can choose the path of bellicosity and war. The Vienna agreement is a victory for diplomacy, a better vision of foreign policy, and the hope for a brighter and safer future. If war is someday necessary, it will not be because we failed to give peace a chance.