Strip away all the rhetoric, and the November 23 agreement with the Islamic Republic of Iran over its nuclear program emerges as an exercise in realism. It recognizes that three decades of enmity and distrust will not be erased overnight, nor can the knowledge of how to make a nuclear weapon be destroyed. This interim agreement represents a first step in verifiably ensuring that Iran’s nuclear program can be strictly limited to peaceful purposes. It is definitely a path worth pursuing.
The outlines of the agreement are simple: in return for a six-month halt to certain construction and enrichment activities, conversion and dilution of an existing 20 percent of enriched uranium stocks, and intrusive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United States and other powers will offer limited relief from crippling sanctions on Iran’s economy. In essence, it deprives Iran of the opportunity to readily further enrich uranium to levels of purity necessary for nuclear weapons. Over the course of this six-month agreement, the sides will explore the possibility of a comprehensive pact that will ensure Iran’s nuclear program is limited to civilian purposes and that treats Iran as any other signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. If, during the next six months, it becomes clear that the Iranians are cheating or trying to hide a military program, then the sanctions can be reimposed immediately and further steps considered. It is worth highlighting that the Iranians made this agreement not just with the United States and its European allies, but also with the Russians and the Chinese. The Iranians would have to weigh the costs of crossing its most sympathetic global powers by failing to live up to the agreement.
Far from being the “historic mistake” that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu contends, the accord is the first step toward a goal that we all claim to share: an Iran that does not pose a nuclear threat to our friends and allies. There are those, including in the US Congress, who argue that harsh sanctions have brought Iran to the bargaining table and that ratcheting up the pressure even further will bring Tehran to its knees. And therein lies the problem: if Iran concludes that the real aim of sanctions is not the nuclear program, but the destroying of the regime itself, then the incentives to develop the bomb regardless of the costs are quite compelling. The point of sanctions was to bring Iran to the table: that strategy has succeeded. Let’s see what we can accomplish with further negotiations, remembering that people (and governments) with their backs to the wall tend to lash out unpredictably.
The same arguments apply to the military option, with even more force. Those who argue for “surgical strikes” ignore the old military adage that the enemy has a vote in the outcome. They assume that the Iranians will play by our rules. Nothing in recent history suggests that will be the case, and the last 10 years should have taught us something about the costs and dangers of asymmetrical warfare. Unless military action completely destroys the Iranian nuclear infrastructure and wipes out its ruling class and scientists, the Iranians will come to the one logical conclusion available: getting the bomb is their only defense against future military action.
We cannot be blind to the nature of the Iranian regime. We have many issues with them besides the potential of nuclear weapons. But this is not about trusting or liking the Iranians. It is about seeing if we can negotiate a verifiable agreement to move Iran away from acquiring nuclear weapons. It is time to have trust in our abilities, and to remember the words of President Kennedy: “We will never negotiate from fear, but we will never fear to negotiate.”
Robert Loftis, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of international relations and a former US ambassador to Lesotho, can be reached at email@example.com.
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