As negotiators jockey in Geneva to reach a framework agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons by the deadline, which comes at the end of March, hardliners in both Washington and Iran threaten to scuttle the deal. Calls for an arbitrary increase in tough sanctions from Washington and charges of bad faith from Iran indicate many want to squash almost any deal. It is important to recognize how these negotiations are in our deep national interests.
Consider the alternative. If these negotiations fail and Iran moves further toward a nuclear weapons capability, Israel will likely strike out at Iran’s nuclear facilities. While such action may delay the program, the national fervor it would unleash would make a nuclear program the goal of most Iranians. The United States would inevitably be drawn into the crisis, further complicating our efforts to stem the crises in Iraq and Syria. The hardliners in Tehran would be strengthened, pushing more moderate and democratic forces further into the shadows. The goal of regime change many hope for would be less, not more likely.
While a negotiated deal has yet to be finalized, the record of more than a year of intense talks demonstrates how the common interest in ensuring that Iran does not get a nuclear bomb has forged unprecedented unity among a disparate collection of nations and the U.N. The U.S. has been a leading force, along with expected partners France, Germany and the U.K., in managing the international coalition that has brought Iran to serious negotiations over its nuclear program. But the coalition has been given its unique strength by the addition of Russia and China, powers that often challenge the international status quo, but that have in this case stood together as part of the so-called P5+1 nations. They have seen that reaching a deal with Iran advances immediate security objectives in the broader Middle East region, as well as longer-term, global nonproliferation goals. Without the help of China and Russia – in some cases against their own immediate economic interests – the strong sanctions regime that brought Iran to the negotiating table would not be nearly as effective.
This coalition has already made significant progress when it reached the interim 2013 Joint Plan of Action that temporarily froze Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the return of a small amount of Iran's frozen assets. At the same time, under U.N. Security Council resolutions, Iran is required to suspend its enrichment of uranium until it establishes that the program is solely for civilian purposes. The International Atomic Energy Agency tightly monitors Iran’s nuclear program and its compliance with its commitments. There is, of course, no guarantee that Iran won’t back out and pursue its nuclear weapons quest. But the international negotiations have been the only reason that course is being halted. To undermine the effort is dangerous and ill-advised.
In Tehran, there remains deep internal opposition to any deal to end Iran’s nuclear weapons program. The country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is demanding the unrealistic goal that any deal lift all economic sanctions on Iran immediately. Such a stance is not surprising as his domestic power rises in any crisis with the West. In fact, Khamenei is already calling on Iranians to prepare for a “resistance economy.” Americans are right to be skeptical of the willingness of Iran to “get to yes.” But it is irresponsible to push them to “no.”
Yet, that is exactly what some in Congress are seeking to do by pushing legislation that would trigger a collapse of the talks, the current freeze in the program and the international inspections of Iran’s activities. Various legislation introduced would trigger sanctions if some arbitrary date passed without a deal and withhold U.S. funds for any international organization of which Iran is a member, including the U.N. Such actions undermine the negotiations and simply hand excuses to Iran to up the ante – or even walk away.
Certainly, all Americans want to see a final deal and an end to Iran’s shenanigans. What opponents of these negotiations fail to understand is that leadership sometimes requires the more complicated – and at times – frustrating path. History shows that strategic patience is often the wiser course. Ronald Reagan, for instance, spent his entire presidency negotiating with the evil empire of the Soviet Union. And America was safer for it. These negotiations with Iran do not indicate acceptance of Iran’s history of supporting terrorism, killing Americans and supporting enemies of Israel. But they do represent our best chance of ending Iran’s dangerous nuclear program and opposing those in Iran who continue to support it.
Congress will have an important role to play in oversight of any deal that is reached and in eventually lifting sanctions if Iran complies with a deal. But for now, in order to keep the coalition together, it is vital to let the diplomatic process play out, with a clear understanding that if the process fails, the U.S., international partners and supporters of diplomacy in Congress will be ready to implement new sanctions.
If Congress fails to see the diplomatic path through, it could scuttle a historic opportunity.