Weighing the Iran nuclear deal: far from perfect, but the alternatives are worse
By THE TIMES EDITORIAL BOARD contact the reporter
The historic agreement reached after 20 months of negotiations between Iran, the U.S. and five other world powers holds out hope that for the next 10 or 15 years the ability of the Islamic Republic to develop a nuclear weapon will be significantly limited. It is far from a perfect deal, it promises less than many had hoped for, it has been oversold by its proponents — but at the end of the day, it must be supported because the alternatives are worse.
Next month, Congress will vote on a resolution to disapprove — and potentially derail — the agreement. We urge members of Congress to vote against the resolution and, if it passes anyway, to support President Obama when he vetoes it, as he almost certainly would do. After that, Congress should press the administration to make good on its promises to counter Iran’s dangerous meddling in the affairs of its neighbors and to respond decisively if Iran is found to have cheated on this agreement.
The basic structure of the deal is this: The United States and the other world powers have agreed to lift the sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy in return for that country’s commitment to curtail its nuclear program. Yet the agreement has troubling flaws, especially when it comes to the rules governing inspections that might expose Iran’s past nuclear activities. We are not reassured by the CIA’s conclusion that Iran will spend the bulk of the $100 billion it could receive in sanctions relief on domestic projects. We fear that a substantial portion of that windfall will underwrite Iran’s sponsorship of militant groups like Hezbollah and Hamas at a moment when the region is already in turmoil, when Islamic State is gaining, Syria is at war with itself and the Arab Spring has crumbled.
And we’re troubled by the fact that an embargo on Iran’s import and export of conventional arms and ballistic missiles will be lifted after five and eight years, respectively.
So why do we support the agreement? The short answer is that, although it certainly represents a gamble, the deal makes it highly unlikely that Iran will develop a nuclear weapon during the next 10 or 15 years. Without it, there is no such assurance.
For years, the international community has sought to force Iran to credibly live up to its insistence that it will use nuclear power for peaceful purposes only. The concern wasn’t primarily that a nuclear-armed Iran would launch an attack on Israel — a suicidal scenario given Israel’s own unacknowledged nuclear weapons — but rather that it would destabilize the region, provide Iran with dramatically more influence and inspire a nuclear arms race. That threat was considered so serious that it united the U.S., its European allies, Russia and China in an international campaign to place meaningful limitations on Iran’s nuclear program.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreed to by Iran and the so-called P5+1 — the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany — requires Iran to dismantle much of the nuclear infrastructure it has assembled, provides for intrusive inspection of known nuclear sites and includes a mechanism for the re-imposition of sanctions in the case of Iranian violations that even some critics of the deal have praised.
Under the agreement, Iran will give up most of its ability to enrich uranium and will place all but 6,000 of its 19,500 centrifuges in storage under the oversight of the International Atomic Energy Agency. It will ship out of the country most of its low-enriched uranium, and it will convert the Fordow enrichment facility into a research center. A heavy-water plant at Arak will be rebuilt to render it incapable of producing weapons-grade plutonium, and construction of additional heavy water reactors will be delayed.
Ideally, all of the provisions of the agreement would be permanent, but instead key restrictions will expire in 10 or 15 years. Critics who say those sunset provisions amount to “kicking the can down the road” have a point. But an Iran unrestrained by this agreement would be able to “break out” to a nuclear weapons capability sooner.
The weaknesses in the agreement are significant. For example, while the inspection regime for known nuclear sites is robust, the procedures for inspecting so-called undeclared sites is both protracted and cumbersome, and falls far short of the “any time, anywhere” inspections many had hoped for. If Iran objects to immediate inspection of such a site, the agreement provides for up to 14 days for negotiation. Some experts worry that Iran could exploit the delay to cover up evidence of violations.
We’re also troubled by the fact the IAEA and Iran have reached a side agreement — whose official text hasn’t been released — that spells out conditions for inspections aimed at establishing whether Iran engaged in forbidden nuclear activities at a military installation at Parchin. News reports that the agreement allows Iran itself, rather than the IAEA, to collect evidence at the site are disturbing. As of now, the facts remain sketchy, but even the lack of transparency about the arrangements is unacceptable. The U.S. should press Iran and the IAEA to divulge the details of that agreement and another that deals with possible military dimensions of past nuclear research.
Some critics have suggested that the agreement’s imperfections could be remedied in new negotiations if Congress disapproved the deal and prevented Obama from waiving sanctions. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), an opponent of the deal, says the U.S. should “pursue the hard-trodden path of diplomacy once more, difficult as it may be.” But it is hard to imagine that an action by Congress to block the deal would impel the Iranians — or America’s negotiating partners — to return to the table to hammer out a better one. As Brent Scowcroft, who served as national security advisor in two Republican administrations, put it: “There is no credible alternative were Congress to prevent U.S. participation in the nuclear deal. If we walk away, we walk away alone.”
Congress should allow this deal to go forward, but it also should hold Obama to a promise he made in a letter he sent this month to Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.). Obama told Nadler that implementation of the nuclear agreement wouldn’t prevent the U.S. from dealing with “Iran’s destabilizing activities and support for terrorism” by continuing sanctions aimed at Iran’s non-nuclear activities. We hope that Obama and those who follow him will not grow complacent after this agreement is put in place.