If wiser heads prevail, the world is about to take a major step forward in controlling nuclear arms, and, perhaps, in reducing the tension in the Middle East.
Congress is now reviewing the deal that the US, France, Germany, Britain, the European Union, Russia, and China reached with Iran earlier this month. The accord dramatically reduces Iran's stock of low-enriched uranium and centrifuges, puts strong limits on new enrichment, and guarantees inspections of its nuclear facilities.
Critics have legitimate concerns about the deal, and it would be naïve to think it will end the hatred many Iranians have for the US. It won't lessen Iran's determination to strengthen its influence in the region. And under the deal, the embargo on selling conventional arms and missiles to Iran will end in five to eight years, adding more weapons to an increasingly violent part of the world.
"Its most immediate effect," a Washington Post editorial noted, "will be to provide Tehran with up to $150 billion in fresh assets from sanctions relief over the next year, funds that its leaders will probably use to revive the domestic economy but also to finance wars and terrorist groups in Iraq, Syria, the Gaza Strip, Yemen, and elsewhere."
Israel and Saudi Arabia are furious about the agreement. Republicans in Congress seem pretty much united in wanting to kill it. And while the liberal group J Street is supporting the deal, some other Jewish-American groups are lobbying hard against it. But if Congress stops the deal, we'll miss a rare opportunity, not only to lower the tension in the Middle East but also to move the US toward a heavier reliance on diplomacy rather than military action to solve disagreements.
And if Congress stops the deal, we'll enter an even more dangerous time. This isn't a deal just between the US and Iran. Even if we don't approve it, the Europeans could go ahead with their part and end their sanctions. In that case, Iran's economy would get a boost. We would still have no controls on Iran's development of its nuclear program, and the guarantee of strong inspections would be gone.
Wall Street Journal columnist Gerald Seibnotes that the attempt to negotiate with Iran on its nuclear efforts began during the George W. Bush administration. Seib recently interviewed Bush's undersecretary of state, Nicholas Burns, who was part of a US-European team working on that effort. Burns' assessment of the deal: It's the best option we have.
"If you look through this deal," Burns told Seib, "these are substantial restrictions on Iran. The probability of Iran getting a nuclear device in the next 10 years is extremely low."
If the US could get an agreement "where the Iranians submitted to every demand we had, I would take that," said Burns. "In a real world, you have to make real-world decisions."
In the past, of course, Israel and some US political leaders have had their own idea of how to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons: bomb Iran's nuclear facilities. But the result would be horrible. We wouldn't be bombing just one or two nuclear facilities. Iran, Fareed Zakaria wrote in the Washington Post, "has a vast nuclear industry, comprising many installations spread across the country." Some of them are close to cities. Civilian casualties would be high.
And besides the humanitarian cost, an attack by the US (or by the US and Israel) would further ramp up anti-US sentiment in the region. It would alienate not only Iranian moderates but also many of our allies. Iran and its allies would certainly strike back. And once again, we would be trapped in a costly war with a highly uncertain outcome.
Nor can we ignore our own history, which is at the root of the current tension between the US and Iran. In 1953, our CIA and Great Britain overthrew Iran's elected government and put our own choice, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, in power. He ruled Iran as a dictator, with our help, until he was deposed in the 1979 revolution, and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took control of the country.
Iran, Guatemala, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Indonesia, Cuba, Vietnam: our relatively recent history simply sparkles with our violent interference in the affairs of other nations - not just meddling, but being actively involved in getting rid of elected officials we haven't liked. We're dealing with the consequences, around the world.
At the heart of the debate over the Iran deal, then, is the US mindset: how we picture ourselves, how we view our role in the world: how we think we best protect ourselves, aid our allies, and work for peace in the world.
The day after a presidential news conference discussing the deal, the Washington Post's Dana Milbank complained that Obama "was tough and strong, but in service of the argument that American power is limited - that this is the best deal we could get with our declining leverage."
Obama's argument supporting the deal, Milbank wrote, was "sadly, a powerful case - for American weakness."
Weakness?Only if you believe that strength can come solely from military might. Diplomacy isn't a weakness. For years, we've assumed that the answer to everything is military power - and that what is in our own best interest is therefore in the best interest of the rest of the world. (Or we haven't cared what was in the best interest of the rest of the world.)
All those years, we've deluded ourselves about the meaning of power and the responsibilities of international leadership. And all the while, we've spent too much money on arms and too little on strengthening our own people. And we've paid too little attention to the plight of the poor and the oppressed in other parts of the world.
The Iran deal gives us a chance to change that. Members of Congress need to hear from us, starting with a key Democrat in this debate, New York Senator Chuck Schumer.