The framework nuclear agreement announced by US, Iranian, and international negotiators in Lausanne, Switzerland, on April 2 has been hailed by President Obama as a promising step toward peace in the Middle East, and condemned by some as a flawed and inadequate barrier to Iranian nuclear ambitions. Many supporters of Israel—and their allies on Capitol Hill—complain that the agreement will not prevent Iran from acquiring the bomb; some on the left worry about its attendant consequences, such as increased US military aid to Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. Yet if the negotiators succeed in concluding a final deal by the June 30 deadline, Iran’s nuclear-weapons potential will be severely constrained for a minimum of 10 years, and the stage could be set for further progress in reducing regional violence. The failure of negotiations, on the other hand, will almost certainly result in heightened tensions and a very real risk of war. Given these stakes, it is essential for progressives to understand the agreement and affirm its potential benefits.
Let’s begin by examining the agreement itself. No common text was issued by US and Iranian negotiators; rather, each side had its own interpretation of the outcome. The US version consists of detailed steps to be undertaken by all sides. Iran, under this version, is obliged to reduce by nearly three-quarters (from about 19,000 to 5,060) the number of centrifuges it can use to enrich uranium; to downsize its existing stockpile of approximately 10,000 kilos of enriched uranium to just 300; to cease enrichment at its underground facility at Fordo for 15 years; and to replace a reactor now under construction at Arak with one that cannot be used to produce plutonium. Other provisions include a ban on the use of advanced centrifuges to enrich uranium and an intrusive system of inspections. Once these steps have been implemented, the United States and the European Union are required to lift all nuclear-related sanctions (those related to terrorism and missile proliferation are not included), though both retain the right to restore sanctions if Iran is found to be in violation of the accord.
This plan of action, if implemented in accordance with the terms specified in the US document, will not stop Iran from enriching uranium altogether; it would still be allowed to enrich up to 3.67 percent of fissionable U-235—enough for civilian reactors, but far too low for weapons use. The plan would also establish a vigorous inspection regime that would make any Iranian violation of the accord immediately evident.
There are ambiguities in the framework agreement (and in the differing US and Iranian interpretations) that require clarification before a final agreement can be signed. For example, the US text doesn’t say what will happen to the 9,700 kilos of enriched uranium that Iran has agreed to surrender; many skeptics of the accord insist that it be removed from the country altogether, while the Iranians wish to retain it in some nonthreatening form. Similarly, the Iranians insist that all sanctions must be lifted immediately upon signing of the agreement, while US officials say they will be phased out over time, in accordance with Iran’s progress in implementing its commitments. If, however, these and other such disagreements can be resolved, the deal would close all potential pathways to an Iranian bomb and expose the country to what Obama describes as “more inspections than any other country in the world.”
What is our stake, as progressives, in the successful completion of the accord, and what is the downside if it fails? At the very least, successful implementation would eliminate the danger of Iran’s acquiring a nuclear weapon during the next 10 to 15 years, which would go a long way toward avoiding a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
Moreover, as both sides gain confidence through the accord’s implementation, the door would be opened to improved US- Iranian relations, allowing constructive conversation and the possible resolution of other conflicts, including war in Syria. Nobody should expect a full-fledged rapprochement—the differences between the two sides are far too great—but increased contact and diplomacy, combined with the lifting of sanctions, could help Iranian President Hassan Rouhani move forward on his agenda of domestic reform, thereby nudging Iran in a more moderate direction.
The successful conclusion of the accord is not, of course, entirely free of danger. There is always the risk that Iran will cheat, so the inspections must be sufficiently rigorous to eliminate any potential backsliding. Another danger could arise when the White House submits a final deal to Congress for a 30-day review, as required under a bill now headed to the Senate floor; when this happens, it is likely that Obama will be pressured to offer various countervailing measures, such as increased arms aid to Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other nearby states that fear Iran’s rise. While some such moves are to be expected, Obama should be cautioned against taking any steps whose net effect would be to exacerbate regional tensions.
Should the agreement fail, the consequences are likely to be far more perilous. It would increase the likelihood of crisis and war; and it would discredit diplomacy and compromise, while emboldening those on all sides who prefer the use of military force.
In articulating his opposition to the April 2 agreement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated, “The alternative is not necessarily to declare war on Iran. It is to increase pressure on Iran…and make Iran make serious concessions and have a much better deal.” But this is a spurious argument. If the United States were to step back from the framework agreement and impose tougher sanctions, the Iranians would most likely eschew further negotiations and repudiate their 2013 pledge to restrain enrichment operations (the basis for the current talks). Any further cooperation from the five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany—America’s partners in the negotiating process—is unlikely to materialize, especially if Washington is viewed as the spoiler. Indeed, if the accord is scuttled as a result of congressional action, these countries are likely to resume trade with Iran despite its continuing nuclear efforts. As Iran moved closer to a bomb, therefore, the only alternative would be war.
An attack on Iran would be bad enough, given the inherent unpredictability of military action, the likelihood of civilian casualties, and the danger that Iran would retaliate by instigating region-wide violence through its proxies, such as Hezbollah of Lebanon. (And even if such violence could be contained, a military strike on Iranian facilities would set back Tehran’s nuclear aspirations by only a few years.) Equally dangerous, the collapse of negotiations would erase the potential for diplomatic progress on other tough problems that Washington faces. It took an intense, sustained effort by Secretary of State John Kerry and his fellow negotiators to arrive at the framework agreement, entailing concessions on all sides; if this sort of give-and-take becomes anathema in Washington, we can expect a corresponding increase in militarism.
The nuclear agreement deserves support in its own right, because its successful implementation would slow the spread of nuclear weapons and reduce the risk of another Middle East war. But it is equally deserving as an affirmation of a peaceful approach to the resolution of international conflicts.