U.S. Should Make Nuclear Deal With Iran: Americans Must Insist That Washington Choose Peace
The author argues that "the ongoing negotiations provide a unique opportunity to simultaneously limit the spread of nuclear weapons and reduce tensions in the Middle East. Success is not guaranteed, but Americans should embrace the possibility of peace."
There are other issues between the West and Iran. The Washington Post complained that the administration “has declined to counter increasingly aggressive efforts by Iran to extend its influence across the Middle East.” Netanyahu claimed much the same: “the world should demand that Iran … stop its aggression against its neighbors in the Middle East.”
Yet Tehran, in contrast to America, has not bombed, invaded, or occupied Iran’s neighbors. The Islamic regime’s military spending trails that of Israel, Iraq, and Qatar. Saudi Arabia devotes more than five times as much money as Tehran to the military.
The regional environment remains extremely hostile to Tehran. For decades the U.S. has intervened all around Iran. Washington backed Hussein’s Iraq in attacking Iran. Israel has bombed and invaded its neighbors when deemed necessary. Saudi Arabia backed the Taliban in Afghanistan, funded radical Sunni groups in Syria, and intervened militarily in Bahrain, which has an oppressed Shiite majority. Who the most aggressive power?
Demanding a regional Iranian surrender would risk the nuclear talks. In contrast, resolving the nuclear issue would improve the chances of addressing other disputes. A more prosperous Iran would naturally have more regional influence and important differences would remain. But there are important areas for U.S.-Iran cooperation. The two governments could work together in Afghanistan and anti-piracy operations. Iran is a de facto ally against the Islamic State (and before that against both al-Qaeda and the Taliban). Further improvements in relations with Washington could draw Iran away from some of its more radical attachments. Said Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council: after signing a nuclear agreement the two nations “can behave in a way that they do not use their energy against each other."
Nevertheless, negotiation critics promise a better deal if the administration stands firm. “Call their bluff,” insisted Netanyahu. The U.S. Congress is threatening new sanctions, which would undercut negotiations after Tehran has limited its program. According to Bloomberg’s John Rogin and Eli Lake, even Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, warned U.S. officials that expanding sanctions would wreck the talks. But radical GOP hawks don’t care. Sen. Cotton insisted: “The United States must cease all appeasement, conciliation and concessions towards Iran, starting with the sham nuclear negotiations.” His position is simple: Iran should surrender.
Ironically, such a demand would encourage Iran to again expand its nuclear capability. Even many Iranians well-disposed toward America support their nation’s nuclear program and do not want to be ruled from abroad. President Rouhani would face well-founded criticism for “appeasement” if he proposed yielding to such demands. Noted NIAC’s Trita Parsi: Rouhani “wants and needs a deal, but can’t afford one that will end his political career in Iran.”
Nor did Iran respond to prior pressure by crawling to Washington. Noted Parsi and Reza Marashi of NIAC: “When Washington imposed on Iran the most comprehensive sanctions regime in history, Tehran did not capitulate. Rather, it responded to pressure with pressure.” Tehran added centrifuges and increased reprocessing capabilities. Only the 2013 JPOA halted this process. A U.S. demand for capitulation would risk restarting Iranian efforts, ending enhanced inspections, and encouraging Tehran to follow North Korea in leaving the NPT entirely.
Having blown up the negotiations, the U.S. then would find it difficult to maintain international support for sanctions. China and Russia already have reason to break with America. Europeans looking forward to business with Iran would blame Washington for the renewed crisis. War might be Washington’s only alternative to a nuclear Iran.
Uranium enrichment may be the most important area of dispute. While technical arguments fly freely, the issue is fundamentally political. Noted the Crisis Group, Tehran has no need for so many centrifuges, other than to reject Western interference in Iran’s affairs, just as the allies have “no need to exaggerate the breakout risks of Iran’s current inventory of a few thousand obsolete IR-1 centrifuges, which are under the most stringent IAEA inspection regime.” Iran wants a rapid increase in allowable centrifuges after the initial period while the allies hope to sufficiently circumscribe Iranian enrichment to convince Tehran to eventually abandon the program. Compromise is required.
Tehran should be permitted to enrich uranium and conduct nuclear research, while accepting barriers between civilian and potential nuclear programs, including steps to hinder reversibility, with meaningful international oversight. The implementation schedule should be based upon technical requirements but adjusted for political considerations. That is, both Washington and Tehran must receive sufficient benefits upfront to justify battling powerful vested interests against peace. Steady progress in future years will be necessary to preserve support for the deal. It might be necessary, suggested the Crisis Group, to “postpone some difficult concessions until both sides have become accustomed to a new relationship.”
The Crisis Group suggested a complicated, multi-phase timetable to fulfill these requirements. Moreover, sanctions should be suspended and eventually lifted over time to reward Iran for progress while retaining incentives for completing the process.
Such an approach likely is the best the West can expect. Preserving industrial-scale nuclear enrichment matters as much for Iran’s national pride as for energy/economics. Iran would be allowed a controlled increase in enrichment capacity after resolving IAEA issues and under tougher monitoring. Having endured years of escalating penalties, Tehran isn’t likely to accept less. Even many Iranians inclined toward the West back the program. Iran’s leaders have no reason to trust Washington, while U.S. officials who blithely imagine an easy military solution would be setting the stage for another extended Middle Eastern disaster.
Thus, negotiations remain the only realistic option to prevent an Iranian bomb. The West must convince Tehran that it doesn’t need a bomb. Pressure only goes so far. Equally important are benefits for abandoning any military designs. Noted James Clapper: “Iran’s technical advancement, particularly in uranium enrichment, strengthens our assessment that Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons, making the central issue its political will to do so.” In his view Tehran would base its decision on a cost-benefit basis, including such interests as security and prestige. Thus, the benefits of any settlement must exceed the costs.
Nearly four decades of hostility and conflict between the U.S. and Iran have malformed America’s relations with the entire Middle East. Washington has found itself constantly at war, permanently allied with authoritarian regimes, and repeatedly suffering the consequences of previous mistakes. A possible Iranian nuclear weapon is as much an unintended consequence as cause of U.S. policy.
However, the ongoing negotiations provide a unique opportunity to simultaneously limit the spread of nuclear weapons and reduce tensions in the Middle East. Success is not guaranteed, but Americans should embrace the possibility of peace. Tehran is an ugly regime. However, that only makes a reasonable and enforceable nuclear agreement more critical. The Obama administration has no more important responsibility today than to successfully conclude the ongoing negotiations with Iran. For the people of America and Iran, failure is not an option.