The agreement the United States, other major world powers and Tehran announced Thursday for containing Iran's nuclear program could set the stage for peacefully resolving one of the longest-running threats to global security. While there still are many questions to answer, the framework President Barack Obama unveiled holds considerable promise for blocking Iran's route to a nuclear weapon and bringing it more fully into the international fold. Congressional critics and the American public should digest the deal and give it an opportunity to succeed as the final details are worked out in the coming months.
The framework for an agreement would achieve the ultimate goal on both sides: keeping Iran from producing weapons-grade fuel in exchange for easing some of the international sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy. Under the deal expected to be finalized by July, Iran — which has maintained its nuclear program is for civilian purposes — would limit uranium enrichment activities to one site and convert a second, secretive underground site into a research facility. A heavy-water nuclear reactor at Arak would be rebuilt to remove its ability to produce weapons-grade plutonium, and the spent fuel would be exported.
These are the broad strokes of any meaningful restrictions. They would freeze the Iranian nuclear capability, preventing Iran from reducing the time it would take to create a bomb. As the president outlined at the White House on Thursday, the deal revolves not on trust but on an unprecedented inspection and verification regimen. Sanctions related to Iran's nuclear program would be relaxed in phases, and only after inspections showed that Iran was in compliance with the agreement. "This has been a long time coming," Obama said.
Congressional Republicans and other critics such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who rushed to trash the deal before it was announced, should judge this framework on its merits. They also should acknowledge the only other alternative is to strike Iran militarily, which Obama appropriately characterized as a short-term solution rather than a long-term commitment for change.
The sanctions did what they were supposed to do by drawing Iran to the table. The agreement would bar Iran from stockpiling materials for at least a decade. It would open up Iran's nuclear program and ensure any "breakout" period toward a bomb was at least a year away. And the agreement keeps Iran engaged politically, which is important as a newer generation of leaders takes over. It also brings two partners in the talks, Russia and China, more into common cause with the West on regional security issues.
As the parties move to put their commitments on paper, there will be plenty of time to assess whether the agreement is, as the president described, "a good deal." But as a practical matter, Iran is never going to hand away its nuclear program for nothing. If anything, this agreement would at least reduce the risk, build some confidence between the parties, create new channels of communication and help acclimate younger Iranian leaders to the norms of global diplomacy. Those would be positive achievements in an uneasy relationship with so few.