By John Allen Gay
April 30, 2014
IT WAS LONG PAST MIDNIGHT IN GENEVA last November when the rumors began to fly. Iran and the world powers had just reached a deal on its nuclear program. An international crisis that had been building toward what seemed like war for more than a decade was now on the path to resolution. The deal, a haggard John Kerry confirmed, was real. It wasn’t comprehensive—Iran would still be heavily sanctioned and heavily centrifuged—but it was unprecedented. All prior efforts had fallen apart. Now the two sides had agreed to initial trust-building measures, had outlined the terms of a final deal and had made plans to work toward it. And what allowed the deal to happen was equally important—a glimmer of rapprochement between Iran and the United States, whose mutual distrust and occasional enmity is the root of the nuclear issue.
No sooner had the deal been reached than Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced it as a snare and a delusion. Similarly, a chorus of American neoconservatives insisted that the Obama administration had cut a lousy deal. “Abject Surrender by the United States” was the headline on former ambassador John Bolton’s story the next day at the Weekly Standard. The surrender, said Bolton, was that under the deal, “Iran retains its full capacity to enrich uranium, thus abandoning a decade of Western insistence and Security Council resolutions that Iran stop all uranium-enrichment activities.” William Kristol announced, “The American people won’t be able to repeal Iran’s nuclear weapons once Iran has them. That’s why serious people, in Congress and outside, will do their utmost to expose and scuttle Obama’s bad Iran deal.” And writing in the Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens did Bolton and Kristol one better. He didn’t say the deal was as bad as the 1938 Munich agreement. He said it was even worse.
Such overwrought piffle exposes the weakness of the neocon case. For the truth is that the deal does not amount to surrender. It will not lead to regime change or other utopian goals. It represents something more plausible—an armed truce that is in the interest of both Iran and the United States and that could lead to a broader détente between the two nations.
HERE’S WHY THE AGREEMENT’S CRITICS have it wrong. While Iran’s gains may have defied Security Council measures and worked around international sanctions, in pragmatic terms the limits on Iran’s nuclear program were being set in Tehran. Fearing war and deeper international cooperation against it, Iran had converted some of its stockpile of 19.75 percent enriched uranium into fuel plates. The challenge of converting them back added time to any rush for bomb-grade uranium. Yet it continued to install new centrifuges and expand its stockpile of 3.5 percent enriched uranium. Both would be useful in a nuclear breakout. Iranian officials regularly declared their intentions to vastly expand parts of the nuclear program in the future. And at times, they even suggested they would build nuclear submarines or other nuclear-powered vessels, which would allow them, under the cover of international law, to enrich uranium to bomb grade. In short, while international law had given us firmer ground from which to oppose Iran’s nuclear advances, it was doing little to arrest them. The time had clearly come for other steps.
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