The agreement between the United States, its five international partners and Iran, to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, represents a major step forward that will make the world appreciably safer. Having studied the text of the agreement, J Street intends to back it and work hard for its implementation, making the case to Congress that this agreement serves the vital security interests of both the United States and Israel.
Of course, Congress has the duty to study, analyze and debate the agreement and to listen to the opinions of experts. But having gone through this process, we strongly believe that Congress should not block this deal because to do so would be an error of historic proportions, paving the way once more for Iran to resume its nuclear program with no international restraints whatsoever.
This agreement clearly meets the goals laid out by President Obama: it blocks all of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon and stretches its breakout time from two or three months to a year; it imposes unprecedented international inspections and monitoring; it rolls back Iran’s existing program to a point where it is no longer a threat; and it puts in place a process for automatically re-imposing international sanctions should Iran backslide.
The agreement has already been endorsed by a consensus of US and international non-proliferation experts. It should be judged on its own merits but it also marks a historic breakthrough and important precedent, creating a template for the resolution of tough foreign policy disputes through diplomacy rather than resorting to war.
Of course, the agreement is not perfect. This was a complex and tough negotiation with give and take on both sides. The question to ask is not whether this is a perfect deal, but rather, whether it accomplishes the international community’s most critical goals, namely preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and providing clear information and sufficient warning time should the Iranians try to cheat. We believe the answer to both of these questions is a clear yes.
This deal places the Iranian nuclear program under the most stringent and intrusive inspections and monitoring regime in history. Moreover, it is important to note that these inspections will continue indefinitely since Iran will be subject to the Additional Protocols of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). As the White House notes, this “will allow inspectors to access and inspect any site they deem suspicious. Such suspicions can be triggered by holes in the ground that could be uranium mines, intelligence reports, unexplained purchases, or isotope alarms.” No site, including military sites, is off-limits under this agreement, and the IAEA does not have to achieve unanimity to demand an inspection – meaning that neither Russia, China nor any other nation can block its access.
Opponents of the deal who argue that Iran cannot be trusted to live up to its terms miss the point. This agreement is about verification, not trust.
It is worth noting that Iran has compiled a record of compliance since the first interim agreement in these negotiations was struck in 2013. Contrary to the warnings of critics, Iran strictly respected that understanding which required it to begin rolling back elements of its nuclear program. Iran stopped installing centrifuges and eliminated its 20-percent-enriched uranium. It also permitted intrusive international inspections of its facilities for the first time in years.
Second, this agreement blocks all of Iran’s paths to a nuclear weapon. It will have to render its plutonium plant at Arak harmless; it will neutralize thousands of tons of enriched uranium, leaving Iran with only the minimum necessary for a legitimate civilian program; and it will decommission thousands of centrifuges. This deal imposes a vast redesign and significant dismantlement of Iran’s existing nuclear infrastructure. Critically, the effect of these measures will be to extend Iran’s “break-out time” that it would require to build a bomb from the current estimated three months to up to a year. That would give the United States and its partners ample time to respond to an attempt by Iran to “dash” for a nuclear weapon. This feature of the deal alone makes Israel much safer than it is today. It makes the Middle East and the entire world much safer.
Third, sanctions relief for Iran kicks in only after nuclear inspectors have verified that Iran has fulfilled its side of the deal. And any Iranian failure to comply would result in the sanctions snapping back into place.
It is true that the agreement does not address Iran’s role as a state sponsor of terrorism and its involvement in regional conflicts. It was not intended to do so. It will not prevent Shiite Iran from competing with its Sunni neighbors, nor will it end Iran’s support for Hezbollah and Hamas and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. It does not address Iran’s violation of basic human rights at home, the anti-Semitic statements routinely issued by some of its officials or its Holocaust denial. The regime will not suddenly become friendly to the United States, much less to Israel.
The United States and its allies can and should continue to hold Iran accountable for its actions in all of these arenas. Sanctions imposed on Iran because of its role as a state sponsor of terrorism and its violations of human rights will remain in place. The United States must and will continue to work with its allies in the region, especially Israel, to ensure the safety of their people against any conceivable threat. President Obama is committed to this and that work is already well underway.
Some have argued that sanctions relief will enable Iran to pour billions of new dollars into terrorist activities in the region and around the world. But Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism is not a function of dollars and cents. There is no evidence to suggest that Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism in the past has been hampered by lack of funds. As the White House notes, geopolitical and not financial constraints will limit greater Iranian activity in the region.
Ultimately, as analyst Graham Allison, the Director of Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a former nuclear advisor to President Reagan, put it in an article in Foreign Policy: “In thinking about a deal in the context of real-world alternatives, the question is: What is worse than the current Iranian regime with all of its attributes and actions we hate? My answer is: that same regime with nuclear weapons.”
Now that the agreement exists, we must also think about the consequences for the United States should Congress decide to reject it or to block its implementation. In that scenario, the United States and not Iran would be blamed for the failure, international sanctions would collapse and the Iranians would be free to resume their nuclear program unfettered by inspections or sanctions.
That is the true nightmare scenario. Therefore, we urge Congress to perform its constitutional duty by holding hearings, hearing testimony and encouraging debate. We urge the widest possible democratic involvement of the American people. We urge a sober, serious debate and an outcome under which the deal can move forward.