Open Zion

12.05.13

Looking Anew at the Iran Nuclear Agreement

In the days since the P5+1 signed the First Step Understandings (FSU) with Iran to freeze and roll back its nuclear program, much has been written about the strengths, weaknesses and uncertainties embedded in the deal.

Nothing that has been published about this agreement, including all the detailed analysis that has listed its limitations, should change the view that this was a necessary and constructive first step toward the widely-shared goal of preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

This agreement is not a final, comprehensive resolution of the issue. Instead, it aims to provide time for the international community to hash out a more permanent arrangement with Iran while preventing the advancement of its program. Serious issues remain to be addressed in a permanent deal, and this interim period should be used to thoroughly test the true intentions of the Iranian leadership, with eyes wide open.

Entering this agreement is, however, as former Chief of Israeli Military Intelligence Amos Yadlin said, better than all the other alternative approaches to dealing with Iran. Opting not to enter this first-step deal would have led almost inexorably either to military action, which would delay but not completely destroy the Iranian program, or to acceptance of an Iranian nuclear weapon. Either outcome could well have plunged the Middle East into turmoil and possibly dragged the United States and Israel into a costly and bloody war.

Some have argued that instead of negotiating with Iran now, the United States and the international community should have simply continued ratcheting up sanctions—aiming to force Iran to accept an even more stringent deal. But waiting several more months for that to happen seems like an extremely risky strategy, with no assurance of success. In those additional months, Iran would most likely have continued to move its nuclear program even closer to the critical breakout point, while discrediting the government of President Rouhani and placing the extremists in Tehran back in the saddle.

Similarly, those who argue that Congress should enact new sanctions at the precise moment that both sides are assessing each other's intentions, even if the new legislation proposes a six–month delay in implementation, are playing with fire.

Legislating new sanctions now could be viewed as violating the terms of the agreement itself, but would certainly be seen around the world as a gratuitous step. The whole world knows that the US Congress stands ready to impose new sanctions immediately should the Iranians fail to live up to the agreement or should it prove impossible to reach a more permanent deal within six months. There is no need to pass legislation now sending that message. The message has already been sent—and received.

The Senate should not take action now that could undermine efforts to chart a diplomatic path out of this very dangerous crisis.

Israel and other parties whose security interests are vitally involved should work with the Obama administration to ensure that the long-term settlement is the strongest possible. It’s encouraging that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is sending a top expert to consult with the administration and has toned down the public rhetoric.

The Israeli government can try to ensure that its concerns are met in the long-term agreement—or it can continue to rail against the document that was signed in Geneva. But it’s unlikely that it can do both. Organizations that support Israel in the United States face the same choice and should focus on the big picture.

Israel’s constructive engagement is particularly important since the P5+1 has not yet fully formulated its own negotiating position regarding its demands for the long-term agreement with Iran. Israel is justified in insisting on an agreement that really and verifiably takes Iran significantly back from the capacity to breakout to nuclear weapons through the dismantlement of core components of its program. At the same time, it is unrealistic to expect that Iran will give up its ability to enrich uranium entirely.

The United States should be aiming for a resolution which ensures that Iran will neither possess a nuclear weapon nor be able to make a dash for one without certain detection (and action) by the United States and international community.

Israel and the rest of the world are correct to relate to Iran with considerable skepticism in light of its record of concealing and lying about its program. Constant vigilance is necessary over the weeks and months ahead.

Israel should work with the United States to define consequences for Iran should there be no final deal within six months. Because everything in the first-stage deal is reversible, the international community should be clear about what should happen if the long-term deal does not materialize. At that point, if it is clear that diplomacy has hit a dead end, new sanctions would certainly return to the top of the agenda.

The First Step Understandings are not intended to be the permanent resolution of this issue. There are many details still to be addressed, and these next six months will be a critical test to see if this highly-complex issue can be resolved through diplomacy and negotiations.

The fact that the United States and Israel have a shared goal regarding the end result of negotiations with Iran should allow the two countries to get back on the same page. Congress should take a step back and allow this to happen.