We're on the brink of a historic treaty to constrain Iran's nuclear capabilities, but the details are still hazy and most Americans haven't made up their minds. Early polls indicated broad support for the agreement with Republicans the most resistant. Before the end of June, when the details of the treaty are worked out, President Obama has to convince Congress and the U.S. public that a rapprochement with Iran is in our long-term interest. If we turn away from this treaty, we're likely headed to war with Iran.
The latest Reuters/Ipsos poll found opinions on the Iran nuclear agreement split along party lines. 50 percent of Democrats supported it, 10 percent were opposed, and 39 percent were unsure. 31 percent of Republicans support the treaty, 30 percent are opposed, and 40 percent are unsure. 33 percent of Independents support the agreement, 21 percent are opposed, and 45 percent are unsure.
It's worth remembering that, in the '50s, the United States helped Iran start its nuclear program under our "Atoms for Peace" initiative. In 1979, the U.S.-Iran relationship went south when the Iranian revolution toppled the Shah. In 2003, Iran made a clandestine offer to the Bush administration to guarantee full transparency to the Iran nuclear program in return for security assurances and normalization of relations; unfortunately, the Bush White House did not respond.
In 2002, due to concern about the extent of Iran's nuclear program, the United Nations, the European Union, and the U.S. imposed sanctions: a ban on the supply of heavy weaponry and nuclear-related equipment to Iran; prohibition of arms exports to Iran; and an "asset freeze" on key Iranian individuals and companies. In addition the U.S. banned all trade with Iran making an exception only for humanitarian assistance.
Beginning in 2006, there were limited talks between Iran and the so-called "P5+1," the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Great Britain, Russia, and the U.S.) plus Germany. These talks accelerated in June of 2013 with the election of a more moderate Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani. Subsequently, there was an agreement that gave Iran $7 billion in sanctions relief in return for increased inspection of Iranian facilities by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors. Since then, the P5+1 has continued negotiations.
On April 2 these negotiations produced Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action the details of which will be revealed by June 30.:
• The time it would take Iran to develop a nuclear weapon would be increased from two-three months to roughly a year.
• Iran agreed to reduce its stockpiles of enriched uranium and to submit to rigorous inspection.
• Iran will reduce its centrifuges from 19,000 to 6104. It will enrich uranium at only one facility, Natanz, and will not enrich beyond 3.67 percent -- insufficient for a bomb -- for 15 years. (It will suspend activity at the controversial Fordow nuclear facility.)
• Inspectors from IAEA will monitor all Iranian nuclear facilities and stockpiles for 20 years and uranium mines and mills for 25 years.
• Iran will gain additional sanctions relief.
On April 5, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman interviewed President Obama, who promised the Iran agreement would protect Israel, "There is no formula that will be more effective than the diplomatic solution we have provided."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu initially condemned the Iran agreement but after several days changed his tone, calling it "deeply flawed." "Netanyahu believes the deal leaves too much of Iran's suspect nuclear program intact, would give it quick relief from economic sanctions and create an easy path for the Islamic Republic to gain the ability to produce a bomb."
In his interview with Thomas Friedman, President Obama addressed Netanyahu's concerns. Obama felt the reduction of nuclear capabilities is sufficient and reasonable. (Some Republicans want a total elimination of the program.) Obama noted there will be a rigorous inspection process and sanctions will not be lifted until Iran accomplishes key points of the agreement.
Many Republicans feel an essential part of this agreement should be for Iran to recognize the State of Israel and to cease its support for militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. President Obama agreed these are important diplomatic objectives but argued they do not need to be part of this agreement.
There's an essential difference between Obama's perspective and that of many Republicans. Obama sees the possibility of negotiation with Iran. He told Thomas Friedman, "Iran may change. If it doesn't, our deterrence capabilities, our military superiority stays in place... [This is a] once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see whether or not we can at least take the nuclear issue off the table."
However, many Republicans, such as Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton see Iran as an implacable foe. ( Cotton said the U.S. objective for Iran should be "regime change.") It's hard to find a measured Republican voice on Iran. Republican Senator Mark Kirk likened the Iran agreement to the appeasement of Nazi Germany at Munich.
Republicans claim they want a better deal but it appears that many of them want no deal. The Iran agreement may go ahead without their approval, but Republicans are playing a dangerous game: once again, they are favoring war over diplomacy.