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Column: Iran deal is a sensible triumph

The Iranian nuclear deal struck over the weekend is a triumph. It contains nothing that any American, Israeli or Arab skeptic could reasonably protest. Had George W. Bush negotiated this deal, Republicans would be hailing his diplomatic prowess, and rightly so.

A few weeks ago, a "senior administration official" outlined the agreement that President Barack Obama hoped to achieve in Geneva. Some reporters who heard the briefing (including me) thought that the terms were way too one-sided, that the Iranians would never accept them. Here's the thing: The deal just signed by Iran and the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany is precisely the hoped-for deal laid out at that briefing.

It is an interim agreement, not a treaty (which means, among other things, that it doesn't require Senate ratification). It is meant as a first step toward a comprehensive treaty to be negotiated in the next six months. More than that, it expires in six months. In other words, if Iran and the other powers can't agree on a follow-on accord in six months, nobody is stuck with a deal that was never meant to be permanent. There is no opportunity for traps and trickery.

Without going into a lot of technical detail, the point is this: The agreement makes it impossible for the Iranians to make any further progress toward making a nuclear weapon in the next six months — and, if the talks break down after that, and the Iranians decide at that point to start building a nuclear arsenal, it will take them much longer to do so.

In exchange for these restraints, the six nations agree to free up about $6 billion of Iran's long-frozen foreign assets. This amounts to a very small percentage of the sanctions imposed on Iran's energy and financial sectors. Meanwhile, all other sanctions will remain in place and continue to be vigorously enforced; the agreement doesn't affect those sanctions at all.

So what's not to like? According to Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu and several American neoconservatives, plenty. In their view, a good agreement must, first, dismantle Iran's entire nuclear program and, second, ban Iran from enriching uranium to any level. In other words, it must ensure that Iran can never build a nuclear weapon.

Notice, I wrote in my lead that the agreement contains nothing that anyone could "reasonably" protest. These objections are unreasonable. Even if the mullahs of Iran vanished tomorrow and were replaced by secular democrats, these new rulers would continue to demand what they see as the right to enrich uranium to some degree. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty allows them the right to develop "peaceful nuclear energy" — that is, to have some form of a nuclear program.

Does the agreement end all reasonable worries about Iran? No. The next phase — the more comprehensive agreement that the parties will try to negotiate over the next six months — will be a much harder nut. The follow-on accord will, presumably, require Iran to dismantle more of its nuclear program — and require the West to start lifting its more crippling sanctions. This will be much more controversial, on all sides.

Still, who would have thought, even a few weeks ago, that an agreement of this magnitude could possibly have been negotiated? Until two months ago, the United States and Iran had not held formal talks of any sort since 1979. Yet this deal goes way beyond any arms control accord that the United States and the Soviet Union struck in the first 18 years of detente.

But let's address the real reason some people object to this agreement — or any Iranian agreement. First, they don't trust Iran. This is reasonable; when it comes to their nuclear facilities, the Iranians have been lying and cheating for years. The thing about this agreement is that it doesn't require trust.

The second reason for resistance is that some people (including the Israeli prime minister, many U.S. neoconservatives and lots of Sunni Arabs) are worried, above all, that this agreement might work. They don't want to see the United States cozying up with Iran.

The Sunnis fear that doing so might tilt the regional balance of power toward the Shiites. Some Israelis fear that a deal could signal an American retreat from the entire region (though many Israelis, including former Mossad chiefs, support an Iranian deal, within reason). And some American neoconservatives … well, they trust Netanyahu more than they trust Obama.

It's time for all the critics to take a deep breath, read the terms of the agreement, recognize that the deal goes way beyond what anybody could reasonably have hoped for, and give this thing a chance.

Fred Kaplan is the author of "The Insurgents" and is the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. © 2013 Slate

Column: Iran deal is a sensible triumph 11/25/13 [Last modified: Monday, November 25, 2013 3:31pm]
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