LET’S MAKE A DEAL

AN OPINION PIECE

John Kerry (America's secretary of state) shakes hands with Mohammed Zarif (Iran's foreign minister) earlier this year. Image source: Reuters

John Kerry (America’s secretary of state) shakes hands with Mohammed Zarif (Iran’s foreign minister) earlier this year. Image source: Reuters

Last year, I wrote a blog post about Iran’s nuclear program and the tortuous haggling session over it. Back then, the deadline was supposed to be 24 November. Well, that was passed, and the negotiations dragged on, and on, and on… until 14 July, when an exhausted John Kerry (America’s secretary of state) and Mohammad Zarif (Iran’s foreign minister) announced they had finally reached a deal. The negotiators presumably celebrated by sleeping all day.

Unfortunately, the deal has faced a torrent of criticism and slander from politicians in America, some of it downright nasty. Hitler analogies are inevitably made. Hawks claim it’s a license for Iran to develop nukes. Many politicians claim that it’s a surrender to a regime backed into a corner just when the sanctions were starting to work. Jews and backers of Israel fret that a 2nd Holocaust is upon them.

Frankly speaking, I think this complaining is a load of bull, and politicians must not give up this chance at putting an end to a longrunning, tiresome dispute. Many of them have seriously inflated expectations of what America can realistically achieve, and their arguments seem weirdly disconnected from reality.

First off, let’s look at what exactly the terms of the deal are.

  • Iran will cut its number of centrifuges from 19,000 to 6,104 (meaning that it won’t be able to enrich as much uranium).
  • Its stockpile of low-enriched uranium will be reduced by 98%.
  • The Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant will be converted into a research center.
  • The heavy water reactor at Arak will be redesigned so it can’t produce weapons-grade plutonium.
  • International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors will check out these and other nuclear sites to make sure Iran is following along.
  • If Iran breaks the agreement, the sanctions it is lifting will be reimposed.

Now I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a really good deal to me! If Iran complies, its nuclear program would be limited to peaceful levels, and if it doesn’t, it would be punished by international sanctions once more. This is basically what the nuclear negotiations were trying to achieve. It also goes further than what Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Khamenei, was originally willing to accept. Kerry and other negotiators were able to win real concessions and push Iran’s positions back over the years they were arguing.

But Iran could still build nuclear weapons somehow, they say. Iranians have cheated, lied, and evaded inspections before, they say. They just can’t be trusted. And many of these provisions only hold for 10 or 15 years, they point out. What if Iran suddenly started enriching uranium, building centrifuges, and revamping that heavy water reactor after that? These are all good points, but whiners have to keep in mind that Iran has lived under sanctions for a while now and it’s probably not about to (further) jeopardize its international standing and bring back the sanctions after going through this long negotiation process.

Congress also needs to remember that even though Kerry was the main figure in the negotiations, he wasn’t the only one. Iran dealt with the “P5 + 1” (the 5 UN Security Council powers plus Germany) and the EU. These countries had all put sanctions on Iran and have all signed off on the deal. If America were to scuttle it, would they keep their sanctions? Aside from France, they’ve been softer on Iran than the US. China is eager to buy Iran’s oil, especially since it likes markets without a lot of Western competition. Russia is waiting to sell Iran arms and nuclear technology. Europeans are already starting to negotiate business deals. Would they really obediently nod if Barack Obama came up to them saying, “Sorry guys, we’re going to cancel it because we couldn’t get everything we wanted, and because Netanyahu said so?”

Although some politicians quibble with aspects of the deal and argue that it could be tougher (which is a dumb reason to oppose it; just go with what you’ve got), there’s realistically probably only 2 other options: revert to the status quo, or war. Reverting to the status quo isn’t likely, because other countries will probably start economic transactions with Iran, as I said above. But even if sanctions were reimposed somehow… Iran could still keep enriching uranium and building centrifuges. It’s been doing that for the last decade anyway. Sanctions bite, but Iran now has a rich nuclear industry and hundreds of trained professionals who know what they’re doing. It doesn’t need foreign help. Also, having negotiated with America only to have the agreement spurned is likely to embolden Iran’s hardliners and bolster the idea of America as “the Great Satan.”

War, to be frank, is a remote prospect too. Although a few rock-ribbed hawks yearn for it, since the George Bush years it hasn’t been a serious option. As I’ve written before, America is tired of war and has no real interest in picking a fight with another Muslim country. An outright invasion and occupation of Iran would be a daunting task; it has 78 million people, a huge territory, a big, determined army, and a nationalist populace. Bombing its nuclear facilities is a more reasonable option, but it would needlessly poison gradually improving relations with Iran (and with the Muslim world in general) and probably not deter a bomb for that long.

History, as usual, provides some clues and useful lessons. An agreement on Iran’s nuclear program was reached in 2005 (Hassan Rouhani, who’s now Iran’s president, negotiated it). It limited centrifuges and enrichment levels and would have provided for the enriched uranium that Iran had already produced to be converted into fuel rods. But that wasn’t good enough for Bush, who basically wanted to throttle the program entirely. The deal was rejected, and since then Iran has built centrifuges and researched nuclear technology without many consequences. It’s also important to remember that Iran endured a vicious 8-year war with Iraq under Saddam Hussein. It doesn’t buckle under foreign pressure easily.

The deal’s critics need to look at the bright side. Iran is probably not interested in building nukes anymore, or at least not for the time being. Striking a deal with Iran would be a big boost to America’s relations with one of the world’s rogue regimes, and maybe even push America towards recognizing the country again (gasp!). The nuclear issue is pretty old news now; America needs to be able to deal with Iran on other things too. The Islamic State is top priority now; America is bombing it from the air while Iranian-backed militias are attacking it from the ground. A little coordination would go a long way. With America out of both Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran (as their neighbor) exerts more and more influence there. Being able to deal with a country with growing influence is always useful. And Iran would be a useful ally in the ongoing war on terror, since many terrorists (as Sunnis) hate Iran (the Shi’ite power) and plot against it.

Lifting the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran would help the whole region breathe easier. Although Israel is usually seen as the main target of Iran’s wrath, Saudi Arabia is emerging more and more as Iran’s archnemesis. The prospect of Iranian nukes has spurred Saudi Arabia into a weapons shopping spree and a poorly thought-out war in Yemen. Iran has its fingers around West Asia — Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Iraq. Sealing the deal would chop off these fingers, since Iran wouldn’t behave so boldly without the threat of nuclear retaliation.

There’s also the prospect of finally integrating Iran into the global system like a normal country. Economic relations between America and Iran would help both countries and relieve ordinary Iranians of various privations they have been enduring. It would also have the longer-term effects of exposing Iran more and more to the outside world and moderating its mean rhetoric. I wouldn’t expect a full-blown democratic revolution anytime soon, but by the time those nuclear provisions run out, would an Iran integrated with the rest of the world even pose as great a menace?

To sum up, the agreement with Iran seems like a no-brainer. The real reason so many American politicians oppose it, I think, is because of the poisonous and pestilential partisanship that has seeped into every issue in American politics these days. Congress is dominated by the opposition (the Republican party), which is determined to oppose Obama at every turn and deny him any “victory,” even major diplomatic breakthroughs. As the pundit Peter Beinart points out, they’re wedded to an outdated idea of the U.S. as an omnipotent global power that can do whatever it wants as long as its leaders and diplomats are skilled enough. Many are in thrall to Israel and its powerful lobbying machine. And frankly, they seem to want surrender rather than a negotiated compromise. After years of partisan wrangling, Congress doesn’t seem to know how to compromise anymore; victory means standing your ground and crushing your opponent while conceding even a few points is a sign of weakness.

But is agreeing to a deal with Iran so bad? Obama’s creating a track record of bringing down the remaining walls in American international relations — with Myanmar, with Cuba. If he added Iran to the list, he could go down in history as a great foreign policy president.

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