Nov. 24 is the deadline for the United States, its partners and Iran to come to an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. No deal has been reached, but none is expected until the 11th hour. A comprehensive agreement offers the best path to assure that Iran will not build a nuclear weapon through technical assurances in exchange for the phased lifting of sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear program. Congress’s sanctions may have helped bring Iran to the table, but some in Congress have proactively tried to undermine negotiations by threatening new sanctions. Without Congressional support, Iran will have little motive to implement a deal, and Iranian hardliners will be emboldened.
Recent debate has focused on how much nuclear technology any proposed agreement should allow Iran to retain. While technical questions are important, they miss three fundamental issues.
First, verification will be built into an agreement. In 2004, Iran agreed to temporarily freeze all uranium enrichment while negotiations were ongoing with the EU. It even began implementing the Additional Protocol, a binding legal agreement that allows the International Atomic Energy Agency to perform more intrusive inspections. Although those talks stalled, they also paved the way for current negotiations. Iran accepts that the IAEA, which is already conducting inspections under Iran’s nuclear agreement, will be the third party responsible for verifying future compliance. Iranian activities would be under a very large magnifying glass.
Second, in critical international negotiations timing matters — all parties need to be ready to negotiate. Leaders’ perceptions and objective factors influence when the time is ripe, and for this current round of negotiation, the leaderships of all countries involved are in favor of a fair deal. Iran is hungry for sanctions relief and wants to be perceived as a respected regional power. Iran acknowledges that a nuclear weapon would only make the country less secure. The core interests of the United States and its partners are essentially that Iran remain transparently compliant and weapons-free, not to humiliate and punish Iran. Iran’s compliance would both improve security and refocus resources on other threats: the Syrian civil war, the push against ISIS, and the Hezbollah/Israel conflict. Sanctions and sabotage have had the ironic effect of hurting Iran without really curbing its nuclear capabilities or desire for self-sufficiency. The limited sanctions relief of the last year encouraged Iran’s current cooperation, but Congress should not squander an opportunity to institutionalize Iranian cooperation on nuclear nonproliferation.
Third, we must consider the alternatives if negotiations fail. We will not have another shot at an agreement for years. If the United States forgoes an agreement for increasing sanctions, the best result will be political, not technical, constraints on Iran’s nuclear program. After the EU-led negotiations faltered in 2005, the international community applied more sanctions while Iran accelerated its previously frozen enrichment program, adding more centrifuges and producing highly enriched uranium. In an extreme case, the use of force against Iran’s underground nuclear facilities, even if successful, would risk spreading hazardous radiological material and could further destabilize the region. And it might ultimately backfire in terms of counter-proliferation.
If an agreement is concluded, Iran will want a road map to a definite end to the sanctions, while the United States needs verifiable assurances that Iran is not pursuing a weapons program. This trade-off is possible now. Sanctions are going to be difficult to unravel, yet may be a small price to pay for a nuclear weapons-free Iran. If a robust, verifiable agreement satisfies the United States and the international community’s interests in non-proliferation and regional cooperation, Congress should support it.
Michelle Dover is a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies. Anthony Wanis-St. John is an associate professor at American University’s School of International Service and the author of “Back Channel Negotiation: Secrecy in the Middle East Peace Process” (Syracuse University Press, 2011).