Note: This post originally appeared on the Arab American Institute's blog.
At about 10:15 p.m. last Saturday night (3:15 a.m. Sunday morning, local time), negotiators in Geneva, Switzerland, announced that the United States and other world powers had reached a deal with Iran that, for the first time, puts real limits on its nuclear program. The deal was worked out between Iran and the "P-5+1" -- the U.S., the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and Germany. Considering that the U.S. and Iran started high-level negotiations only a few months ago -- the first such talks since Iran seized the U.S. embassy and took American diplomats hostage in 1979 -- this is a very significant development.
The deal, a good rundown of which can be found here, prohibits Iran from enriching uranium at any level more concentrated than 5 percent over the next six months, and requires Iran to dilute or convert its uranium enriched up to 20 percent (weaponization requires enrichment at about 90 percent). Although the agreement does not require any significant reversal in Iran's nuclear capability, it does require a clear halt in progress, essentially freezing every essential piece of the Iranian nuclear program in place over the next six months. The idea is that during that time, negotiations between the P-5+1 and Tehran will continue towards building a more permanent deal: this is, in name and substance, an "interim agreement," designed to hold the status quo in place.
Iran's most significant concession is a dramatic increase in inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Tehran agreed to allow far more access to its nuclear plants by outside monitors than it has before, and the IAEA can reasonably be counted on to do its job. This means, crucially, that the agreement doesn't require trusting the Iranian regime to abide by its commitments. IAEA will be able to inspect Iran's nuclear facilities literally every day, and they will be able to remotely access video equipment that must remain in place at all times and consistently record activities at the plants. In short, the terms of this agreement, if followed, will make it virtually impossible for Iran to make any progress on building a nuclear weapon -- and the monitoring provisions mean the P-5+1 will know whether Iran complies with the terms.
In exchange, Iran gets about $5 or 6 billion in sanctions relief, but most of the major sanctions imposed by the U.S. and European Union will remain intact. Furthermore, since the agreement only lasts six months, the relief is not permanent -- and the sanctions certainly can be restored earlier if Iran reneges on its commitments by enriching too high or impeding the IAEA's access. The agreement clearly doesn't trust Iran to keep its commitments, at least at this early stage -- and rightfully not, given Tehran's consistent history of subterfuge and concealment on its nuclear program in years past. But it may be a first step towards reestablishing that trust.
As with seemingly everything this president does, political reaction to the deal has included unrestrained canonization, accusations of treason, and from the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, comical absurdity. Reaction from lawmakers -- whose cooperation is crucial to the agreement's success, since Congress could defeat it by imposing additional sanctions before the agreement expires -- has not been what the White House would have hoped. At best, there was cautious optimism: Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) called it "a very important first step toward the goal of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon," but added, "If Iran cheats, it will face even stiffer sanctions. Don't trust, but verify again and again." Likewise, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), a close White House ally, said only that if the agreement works, it will be "be an important trust building step toward our ultimate goal." That was about as much praise as the administration got from its usual supporters.
Many Democrats, though, had no hesitation in voicing displeasure. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), the House Foreign Affairs Committee's Ranking Member, expressed disappointment that Iran could continue enriching during the talks. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate and a very close ally of President Obama, raised the possibility that Congress might be more likely to increase sanctions because the deal "does not seem proportional." Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), the House Minority Whip, also expressed concern. And the GOP, of course, had no hesitation in expressing their feelings: "We have just rewarded very bad behavior [by Iran]," said Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI), Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), a possible 2016 presidential candidate, agreed.
It is, however, worth noting two things about the "no deal" crowd. The first, and more important, is its total lack of a realistic alternative. Many deal-bashers fervently insist they don't want a war with Iran, but they have failed to suggest any realistic way forward that doesn't lead down that path. Their ultimate goal -- an Iran that has no ability to produce nuclear power at all, or at least no way to enrich uranium -- is impossible without military action. Some of the deal-bashers have simply acknowledged this, and are now openly advocating military action, usually by comparing President Obama to Neville Chamberlain (meaning they, of course, are Winston Churchill). Others suggest Israel will strike Iran's nuclear program preemptively, as it did in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007. This is wildly unrealistic. Both of those operations involved single, surgical attacks on nuclear reactors in one place, easy targets from the air. Iran's nuclear facilities are in many different places around the country, and almost exclusively underground (presumably to avoid a similar fate). No serious person thinks it would be possible to inflict significant damage on Iran's nuclear program without a sustained aerial bombing campaign, lasting weeks rather than days, and causing significant collateral damage. In sum, the "no-dealers" have no real solution here except the use of military force. Perhaps war with Iran is inevitable, but the no-dealers should explain why this isn't at least worth trying first. So far, they haven't.
That brings us to the other thing one notices about the anti-deal crowd: It almost universally supported the Iraq War (everyone quoted above who was in Congress in 2002 voted in favor of the resolution to authorize military force). Iraq, of course, was a bipartisan mistake: It had the support of many Democrats, including then-Senators Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and John Kerry. That doesn't mean all those Congressmen and pundits' opinions on all foreign policy matters are worthless: people make mistakes, and many of the Iraq hawks -- more on the left than the right, but some conservatives as well -- have acknowledged that they were wrong. But a significant number of politicians and people still believe the Iraq War was a good idea -- and to a person, they are sounding the alarm about this deal with Iran.
Someone who still thinks the Iraq War was a good thing simply should not be taken seriously as a voice on foreign policy. The United States' decision to invade Iraq was not just a mistake, it was the most catastrophic foreign policy decision this country made since Vietnam. Not only did it fail to make us safer, but it directly contributed to our current situation by removing Iran's greatest threat and mortal enemy -- Saddam Hussein -- from power and replacing him with a government much friendlier to Tehran's interests. The Bush administration labeled Iran a member of the Axis of Evil, then proceeded to remove its most significant threat and hand it a new trading partner and strategic ally in the region. And our obsession with Iraq prevented us not only from fighting al-Qaeda -- our ostensible enemies in the "War on Terror," and the only people who have actually attacked us in the last few decades -- but also from making any serious progress on nuclear negotiations with Iran and North Korea. Indeed, by making those regimes feel their survival was seriously threatened, we probably encouraged them to accelerate their nuclear production. North Korea succeeded in building a bomb, and here we are with Iran today. The architects of all these policies are the same ones calling the deal with Iran a surrender, and the ones who had the foresight to oppose the war (such as, among others, the president) recognize this might be the best deal we can get.
This deal is not perfect, and no one is saying it is. It wouldn't be an "interim agreement" if it was intended to be a long-term solution. But it freezes Iran's enrichment capabilities where they are, and makes sure we'll know if they restart. It keeps the vast majority of sanctions in place, and the relief it provides can be canceled if Iran fails to hold up its end. Iran has plenty of incentive to cooperate over the next six months, because even if President Obama can keep Congress at bay on additional sanctions for now, he won't be able to if Iran doesn't follow through. If it works, President Obama will have a foreign policy achievement that will cement his legacy. If it fails, all our concessions are reversible, and we'll just have shown the world another example of Iran's refusal to cooperate or act in good faith. A small chance of success is better than zero.