As the Iran nuclear talks neared the endgame, some observers worried that President Obama and Secretary of State John F. Kerry, in their eagerness for a deal, would give away the store with last-minute concessions.
Those fears turned out to be misplaced, notwithstanding Tuesday’s howls of protest from Israeli and GOP critics. The agreement is a well-crafted pact that maintains the framework reached in Lausanne, Switzerland, in April. Rather than softening the Lausanne terms, the final language firms up some squishy items. It also adds important new restrictions on Iran’s ability to develop the exotic triggering mechanisms needed to build a nuclear bomb.
The problem isn’t the agreement but Iran itself. Its behavior remains defiantly belligerent, even as it signs an accord pledging to be peaceful. Its operatives subvert neighboring regimes, even as their front companies are about to be removed from the sanctions lists. The agreement welcomes Iran to the community of nations, even though its leader proclaims that Iran is a revolutionary cause.
Obama argues that dealing with a menacing Iran will be easier if the nuclear issue is off the table for the next 10 years. He’s probably right, but the Iran problem won’t vanish with this accord. Iranian behavior in the region becomes the core issue. Having played the dealmaker, Obama must now press Iran to become a more responsible neighbor.
The big bet Obama is making is that Iran is more likely to evolve if it’s open to the world — and to the winds of change — than if it remains closed and isolated. There is historical evidence to support this view, including the demise of the Soviet Union and the evolution of modern China. But those countries also offer a warning that diplomatic agreements can be a prelude to cold peace and even outright conflict.
A deal with Iran has been Obama’s overriding foreign-policy goal since Inauguration Day, when he declared his desire to engage adversaries on a basis of “mutual interest and mutual respect.” He has paid a heavy cost to protect his Iran peacemaking, sidestepping confrontation with Iranian proxies in Syria and Russia in Ukraine, in part because he saw the Iran deal as a higher priority. Obama explained his logic Tuesday morning: “Put simply, no deal means a greater chance of more war in the Middle East.” Historians will have to judge whether he has gained more than he lost.
The Iranian regional threat was at the heart of the eleventh-hour debate over whether to lift a U.N. embargo on sales of arms and missile technology to Tehran. This issue was finessed with an agreement to maintain the arms-sale ban for up to five years and the missile limits for up to eight years. That wasn’t the capitulation some had feared. And it allows for review of Iranian behavior.
The final agreement put in writing the framework that Kerry had negotiated this spring. The Iranians agreed to limit the number of centrifuges in Natanz to 5,060 IR-1 models, which are relatively inefficient. They agreed to cap their enrichment and stockpile of uranium at relatively low levels. The text and the technical annexes support Obama’s claim that the agreement will prevent Iran from building a bomb for at least the next decade.
The danger, argues Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is that after 10 years, Iran will have “a sure path to nuclear weapons.” Iran pledged in the agreement that its nuclear aspirations are perpetually peaceful. But even if you assume (prudently) that the Iranians are lying, the Obama administration makes a good case that it will be easier with the agreement than without it to detect and stop an eventual Iranian breakout.
Heading into the final days of talks, the crucial issue was verification. Obama claimed Tuesday that International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors would have access “where necessary, when necessary.” That’s not as strong a commitment as “anywhere, anytime,” and the formula for the IAEA’s “managed access” is complicated. What gives it teeth is that neither Russia, China nor Iran can block inspections. The United States and its European partners can prevail, if there is a dispute.
In the wake of the agreement, Netanyahu called Tuesday “one of the darkest days in world history.” Republican politicians made similar strident attacks, but the critics appeared to be outliers. The pact has the support of most major nations. Even Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates offered measured comments. Obama seems to have won this round. Netanyahu and his GOP allies are indignant about the deal, but they are taking on the world.