International agreements last only so long as their signatories support them. Political forces certainly exist here as well as in Iran that oppose the interim agreement that the United States and the five other nations signed with Iran freezing its nuclear program. Agreements like this always contain risks, but in this instance, the rewards are sufficient to justify the risks.
While negotiations over a final agreement take place, the current deal stops Iran from using its nuclear facilities to make bombs. It allows the International Atomic Energy Commission to conduct rigorous daily inspections. Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, says, “The limits on Iran's nuclear program are, unequivocally, a major success in reining-in Iran's nuclear potential and an essential stepping stone toward the negotiation of an even more effective, final agreement.”
The agreement also continues a welcome thaw in American relations with Iran. Some hardliners in Congress like to present America as the wounded party in the longstanding quarrel between the two nations, but that is simply not the case. This August, the Central Intelligence Agency finally unclassified documents that revealed its role in the overthrow of Iranian nationalist Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953. That act, and America’s continuing support for the Shah’s dictatorship, figured prominently in the minds of the Iranian revolutionaries who held American diplomats hostage in 1979.
Iran subsequently supported terrorist acts against Americans, but Americans backed Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, who in 1980 began an eight-year war with Iran that cost the Iranians a million lives. The Bush administration also branded Iran, which had aided America in Afghanistan, part of the “axis of evil” and supported groups that sought to overthrow its government.
A thaw between the governments could ease conflicts throughout the Middle East and even South Asia. Iran could be of immense help in negotiating an end to the war in Syria. (Syria is Iran’s Vietnam. It has already spent billions backing Basher al-Assad.) The Rouhani government could aid the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq. It could help suppress al Qaeda and other Sunni terrorist organizations. It could reduce Saudi Arabia’s sway over world oil prices. And it could remove a real, or imagined, threat to Israel. It’s easily forgotten, but Iran was once Israel’s closest ally in the Middle East. The two nations have an affinity as religious outliers in the Sunni Arab Middle East that could be revived if Israel were finally recognize the rights of Palestinians.
The main opponents of America reaching an agreement were the Israeli and Saudi governments and organizations and politicians in the United States that are close to the rightwing Netanyahu government in Israel. Netanyahu has compared the agreement to the 1938 Munich agreement that allowed the Nazis to gobble up Central Europe. And Illinois Senator Mark Kirk, who, when he ran in 2010, was the largest recipient of so-called pro-Israel money, compared Obama to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain who signed the Munich Agreement. During the last month, Kirk and other Senators pressed for even harsher sanctions on Iran, even though the effect of these would have been to undercut any possibility of an agreement with Iran and leave the United States with no option but war to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
In the weeks before the new agreement was signed, some opponents began to back down. On October 29, after meeting with senior administration officials, leaders of AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Conference of Presidents of Jewish Organizations reportedly agreed not to press a new sanctions bill while the administration was negotiating the interim agreement with Iran. And in the immediate aftermath, several important critics appear to have moderated their stance. Kirk, while belittling of the Iran’s concessions in the agreement as “cosmetic,” now threatens to bring forth sanctions legislation only if “Iran undermines this interim accord or if the dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is not under way by the end of this six-month period.” That even opens the way to Kirk backed a final agreement.
The Guardian described the Saudis as maintaining a “discreet silence” about the agreement. Only Netanyahu and other members of his administration have continued to denounce the agreement. Netanyahu called the deal an “historic mistake.” “The Iranian regime is committed to the destruction of Israel and Israel has the right and the obligation to defend itself, by itself, against any threat,” Netanyahu said. “As Prime Minister of Israel, I would like to make it clear: Israel will not allow Iran to develop a military nuclear capability.”
Netanyahu’s statement was uncompromising – even setting as a trigger Iran developing a “capability” and not an actual weapon. It also hyped an “existential” Iranian threat that, if it ever existed, only did so during the term of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and then only in Ahmadinejad’s fevered rhetoric, which was meant for domestic consumption. The rhetoric is dated, and so, too, is Iran as a major backer of Hamas. But it is unclear whether Netanyahu is really laying the basis for an Israeli military strike, or simply currying favor with Israeli voters. Israel does not appear to have the military ability to knock out Iran’s nuclear program, although it could certainly reap havoc and start another regional war.
Netanyahu and some American critics of the deal with Iran have compared it to the American agreement with North Korea in 2005, in which North Korea promised to give up nuclear weapons in exchange for economic aid. North Korea subsequently violated the agreement. But a more optimistic comparison would be to the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) agreement that Ronald Reagan signed with the Soviets in 1987.
Conservatives denounced Reagan for the pact. National Review called it “Reagan’s suicide pact.” Henry Kissinger charged that it undermined “40 years of NATO.” But, of course, the treaty turned out to be a prelude not only to more comprehensive arms agreements, but to the end of the Cold War. If the United States is lucky – and luck is always a factor in international affairs – the modest deal that the United States and five other nations signed with Iran could, like the Reagan’s INF treaty, be the beginning of something much larger more important, and more welcome.