War Stories

We Have a Deal With Iran. A Good One.

It’s everything Obama hoped to achieve in Geneva.

President Obama addresses the nation after an interim deal to preventing Iran from creating a nuclear weapon was reached.

Photo by Brendan Smailowski/AFP/Getty Images

The Iranian nuclear deal struck Saturday night is a triumph. It contains nothing that any American, Israeli, or Arab skeptic could reasonably protest. Had George W. Bush negotiated this deal, Republicans would be hailing his diplomatic prowess, and rightly so.

A few weeks ago, a “senior administration official” outlined the agreement that President Obama hoped to achieve in Geneva. Some reporters who heard the briefing (including me) thought that the terms were way too one-sided, that the Iranians would never accept them. Here’s the thing: The deal just signed by Iran and the P5+1 nations (the United States, Britain, France, Russia, and China plus Germany) is precisely the hoped-for deal laid out at that briefing.

It is an interim agreement, not a treaty (which means, among other things, that it doesn’t require Senate ratification). It is meant as a first step toward a comprehensive treaty to be negotiated in the next six months. More than that, it expires in six months. In other words, if Iran and the other powers can’t agree on a follow-on accord in six months, nobody is stuck with a deal that was never meant to be permanent. There is no opportunity for traps and trickery.

Meanwhile, Iran has to do the following things: halt the enrichment of all uranium above 5 percent and freeze the stockpile of uranium enriched to 3.5 percent; neutralize its stockpile of uranium that’s been enriched to 20 percent (either by diluting it to 5 percent purity or converting it to a form that cannot be used to make a weapon); stop producing, installing, or modernizing centrifuges; stop constructing more enrichment facilities; halt all activities at the Arak nuclear reactor (which has the potential to produce nuclear weapons made of plutonium); permit much wider and more intrusive measures of verification by the International Atomic Energy Agency, including daily inspections of all facilities.

Without going into a lot of technical detail (which can be read here), the point is this: The agreement makes it impossible for the Iranians to make any further progress toward making a nuclear weapon in the next six months—and, if the talks break down after that, and the Iranians decide at that point to start building a nuclear arsenal, it will take them much longer to do so.

In exchange for these restraints, the P5+1 nations agree to free up about $6 billion of Iran’s long-frozen foreign assets. This amounts to a very small percentage of the sanctions imposed on Iran’s energy and financial sectors. Meanwhile, all other sanctions will remain in place and continue to be vigorously enforced; the agreement doesn’t affect those sanctions at all. The U.S. Congress does have to agree not to impose additional sanctions in the next six months. If it imposes them anyway, they must know that this agreement—and the international coalition holding the sanctions in place—will collapse. Even this Congress is likely to hold off. If it does go ahead and passes a bill imposing new sanctions, Obama will certainly veto it.

So what’s not to like? According to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and several American neoconservatives, plenty.* In their view, a good agreement must, first, dismantle Iran’s entire nuclear program and, second, ban Iran from enriching uranium to any level. In other words, it must ensure that Iran can never build a nuclear weapon.

Notice, I wrote in my lede that the agreement signed Saturday night contains nothing that anyone could “reasonably” protest. These objections are unreasonable. Even if the mullahs of Iran vanished tomorrow and were replaced by secular democrats, these new rulers would continue to demand what they see as the right to enrich uranium to some degree. Some would argue that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty enshrines this right. Certainly the NPT allows them the right to develop “peaceful nuclear energy”—that is, to have some form of a nuclear program.

Netanyahu’s worry has been that a partial accord would allow the Iranians to advance their nuclear program while stringing us along in interminable follow-on negotiations. It should be clear that the terms of this agreement prevent them from playing games. President Obama also said, in a televised address Saturday night, that if the Iranians don’t abide by their commitments in the next six months, he will again freeze their overseas funds and impose stiffer sanctions.

Does the agreement end all reasonable worries about Iran? No. The next phase—the more comprehensive agreement that the parties will try to negotiate over the next six months—will be a much harder nut. The follow-on accord will, presumably, require Iran to dismantle more of its nuclear program—and require the West to start lifting its more crippling sanctions. This will be much more controversial, on all sides. If the first-phase deal falls apart, it will be easy for President Obama to refreeze Iran’s foreign assets. But if the next phase—the comprehensive accord—falls apart, it will be harder for the P5+1 nations to reimpose sanctions. On the Iranian side, their hard-liners must be gulping at even this interim agreement, hoping that the unfreezing of assets will provide enough economic relief to make the nuclear cutbacks worthwhile. How much further they’re willing to cut without the total lifting of Western sanctions—and how far the West is willing to lift sanctions without the total dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear programs—is unknown. Merely posing the question this way is cause for pessimism.

Then again, who would have thought, even a few weeks ago, that an agreement of this magnitude could possibly have been negotiated? Until two months ago, the United States and Iran had not held formal talks of any sort since 1979. Yet this deal goes way beyond any arms-control accord that the United States and the Soviet Union struck in the first 18 years of détente.*

But let’s get serious and address the real reason some people object to this agreement—or any Iranian agreement. First, they don’t trust Iran. This is reasonable; when it comes to their nuclear facilities, the Iranians have been lying and cheating for years. The thing about this agreement is that—like all well-written accords between countries with good reason to distrust one another—it doesn’t require trust.

The second reason for resistance, and a more serious political problem, is that some people (including the Israeli president, many American neoconservatives, and lots of Sunni Arabs) are worried, above all, that this agreement might work. They don’t want to see the United States and the other big powers cozying up with Iran. The Sunnis fear that doing so might tilt the regional balance of power against them and toward the Shiites. Some Israelis fear that a deal could signal an American retreat from the entire region (though many Israelis, including former Mossad chiefs, support an Iranian deal, within reason). And some American neoconservatives … well, let’s face it, they trust Netanyahu more than they trust Obama.

It’s time for all the critics to take a deep breath, read the terms of the agreement, recognize that the deal goes way beyond what anybody could reasonably have hoped for, and give this thing a chance. It is in U.S., Israeli, and Arab interests for Iran to do things that make it harder to build a nuclear bomb. And if a détente-of-sorts evolves from these talks, if it becomes possible for the United States and Iran to discuss, then maybe act upon, issues of mutual interest, then that is certainly in our interest, whatever anybody else thinks.

In recent weeks, some neocons have warned that Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s seemingly pragmatic new president who’s brought about all these breakthroughs, is “no Gorbachev.” This is true, but it’s worth recalling that, back when he first came to power and started talking about glasnost and perestroika, these same people warned that Gorbachev was no Gorbachev either.

The agreement struck Saturday night (or Sunday morning, Geneva time) is a first step. In a year’s time, it may be seen as a small step and a brief, naive step at that. But for now it’s a step rife with historic possibilities; it’s a step that should be taken with caution but also with hope and gusto.

Correction, Nov. 24, 2013: The article originally stated that it took the U.S. and the USSR a “quarter-century” to reach any arms-control deals during détente. (Return.)

Correction, Dec. 2, 2013: This article originally misidentified Benjamin Netanyahu as the president of Israel. He is the prime minister. (Return.)