Congress Must Bind Iran's Nuclear Program ... or Else | Commentary

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t spell out an effective way to block Iran’s path to the bomb in his address to Congress. If Netanyahu were more candid, he would acknowledge the only way to achieve his aims is through military strikes rather than negotiations. In this event, Iran would have far more reason to build nuclear weapons. If members of Congress who favor an agreement were candid, they would acknowledge it will weaken global norms for non-proliferation. If, however, Congress kills a deal that effectively constrains Iran’s nuclear capabilities, the consequences for proliferation will be far worse.

Congress is in a bind. We’re long past the point of closing the barn door on Iran’s enrichment capability. Tehran built this capability during the George W. Bush administration and expanded it greatly in the Obama administration. At this juncture, the best of a poor set of choices is to constrain Iran’s nuclear capability under close scrutiny. Alternatively, Congress can seek ways to reject or block an agreement, assuming one can be successfully negotiated. Rejection could lead to the expulsion of international inspectors, and increased enrichment and airstrikes. Airstrikes would lead down many roads, none of which point to safe destinations.

Non-proliferation has taken a hit because Iran’s nuclear facilities are sized for bombmaking rather than electricity. It will take a more severe hit unless these facilities operate at only a small fraction of their capacity. Iran’s neighbors, notably Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt, have also decided they must have nuclear power plants — the purported rationale for Iran’s enrichment facilities. Uranium enriched to 5 percent, appropriate for generating electricity, is readily available for purchase. Purchasing low-enriched uranium, however, comes with inspectors and safeguards. Enriching uranium to 90 percent suitable for bombs requires having an unsafeguarded, indigenous capability. Whether more uranium enrichment plants are built in the Middle East, and whether enrichment occurs under inspection depends, in large measure, on the outcome of these negotiations. The spread of unsafeguarded enrichment plants in the Middle East will doom the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

An effective agreement will be possible if Iranian leaders see more risk than reward in acquiring nuclear weapons. Opponents of an agreement cannot imagine this to be the case. They are convinced Iran’s leaders will use the bomb to backstop their ambitions in the region. Even worse, religious zealots in Iran might not hesitate to start a nuclear war. Just read their threats about burying Israel.

This pessimistic appraisal might be right. It might also be wrong, in which case it would be foolish and tragic to assume the worst and then unwittingly help make it happen. Nikita Khrushchev threatened to bury the United States during the Cold War. This threat was taken seriously, but was overtaken by realism and affected by political engagement. The Soviet Union decided the bomb was too dangerous a weapon to use.

Instead, a succession of Soviet and U.S. leaders agreed to do things that only wishful thinkers could have hoped for: Washington and Moscow agreed to limit, reduce and even eliminate many of their most powerful weapons and means of delivery. They even agreed not to test nuclear weapons — and haven’t done so for more than 20 years. These achievements, which remain in place even under Vladimir Putin, happened despite the warnings of pessimists who couldn’t envision how geopolitical and ideological adversaries could reach such accommodation. Rewards came to those who took risks for negotiated settlements, while being prepared for the consequences of failure.

U.S. negotiations with the Soviet Union and Iran are different in many ways, but alike in how little the two sides can relate to each other.

During the Cold War, U.S. war plans were predicated on managing escalation, while the Soviet General Staff disregarded this. The two superpowers nonetheless found common ground and reached accords despite their differences. How do Iran’s leaders really think about nuclear weapons? Are we to take Iran’s supreme leaders literally when they talk about annihilating Israel, but not when they say that the bomb is an “un-Islamic” weapon?

The Obama administration seeks to constrain Iran’s nuclear capabilities in ways that can dampen proliferation elsewhere in the Middle East.

Our interests, and those of our friends and allies in the region, would be better served by limiting Iranian capabilities in verifiable ways than by demanding the impossible, watching sanctions erode and seeking temporary solutions in bombing runs.

Nuclear dangers have been reduced and our worst nightmares have been avoided, thanks to leaders who were willing to take risks to reach unlikely agreements. Congress is at this juncture once again. An agreement with Iran that effectively constrains its bomb-making ability in verifiable ways is worth trying. Rejecting or blocking such an agreement is to concede failure without trying.

Michael Krepon is co-founder of the Stimson Center and the author of “Better Safe Than Sorry: The Ironies of Living with the Bomb.”