Opinion

Opinion | Stephen Kinzer

Extremists fear the Iranian nuclear deal might work

Kayla Marks protests against the Iran nuclear deal on Sept. 3, 2015 in Davie, Fla.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Kayla Marks protests against the Iran nuclear deal on Sept. 3, 2015 in Davie, Fla.

Donald Trump has promised that as soon as he becomes president of the United States, he will “rip up and rescind this catastrophic Iranian nuclear deal.” Hard-liners in Iran are cheering. One of their leaders, the powerful editor Hossein Shariatmadari, recently declared, “The wisest plan of crazy Trump is tearing up the nuclear deal.”

Extremists in the United States and Iran have joined to derail this 10-month-old deal. They share a horror scenario: an Iran that is successfully integrated into the Middle East and the wider world, increasingly free at home and responsible in its neighborhood. Militants in Washington fear that this would give Iran a regional role commensurate with its history, size, and power, while they wish to see it tied down forever. Militants in Tehran fear that cooperating with the outside world will erode their authority and possibly lead to collapse of the Islamic Republic. These are reasonable fears.

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When debate over the nuclear deal was raging last year in Washington, opponents relentlessly repeated a potent argument. They insisted that the deal made no sense because Iran is untrustworthy and never keeps its promises. Now, a new kind of Iran-related panic has broken out in Washington. This year’s fear is the opposite of last year’s. Opponents of the deal say it must be junked because Iran is living up to it.

“Iran has complied,” the Congressional Research Service reported last month. Its conclusion is hard to dispute. Iran has dismantled more than 12,000 nuclear centrifuges, shipped 98 percent of its nuclear fuel to Russia, and poured cement into the core of its heavy-water reactor. This has set off waves of outrage in Washington and Tehran. The prospect that the nuclear deal might actually work terrifies hard-liners in both capitals.

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Many in Washington portray Iran as recklessly irresponsible and a relentless enemy of the United States. Iran undermines that image by fulfilling its obligations under a major international accord. In a coordinated effort to throw the deal off course even at this late date, members of Congress have introduced a host of bills aimed at crippling it.

One of those bills would make it illegal for Americans to buy heavy water from Iran — water that Iran must sell under terms of the nuclear deal. Another would forbid the awarding of defense contracts to “any company that does business with hostile Iranian actors.” Others threaten unspecified steps to counter Iran’s “malign activities” and punish it for “conducting military operations in a manner that raises tensions.”

Members of Congress have even sent a strongly worded letter to Boeing urging that it not seek to sell civilian airliners to Iran. Boeing has pursued this deal, which could be the richest contract in aviation history, but the congressmen said that would be “placing profits over the safety and well-being of the American people.” This increases the possibility that Iran Air will buy its new fleet from Boeing’s European competitor, Airbus. Even Trump sees the illogic. “We give them the money, and we now say, ‘Go buy Airbus instead of Boeing,’ ” he reasoned. “So how stupid is that?”

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The phrase “give them the money” reflects another misleading aspect of the US-Iran narrative. American banks are holding billions of dollars in Iranian money that was impounded after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Under terms of the nuclear deal, that money is supposed to be returned. Estimates of the total run from $50 billion to $150 billion. Secretary of State John Kerry sounded positively jubilant when he said in a recent Washington speech that Iran had received no more than $3 billion so far. The United States has also been exceedingly slow to lift sanctions that can be imposed on foreign companies if they do business with Iran.

“The Americans have said that they would lift sanctions, and they have actually done so on paper,” Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, complained recently, “but through other ways and methods, they are acting in a way that the result of sanctions repeal will not be witnessed at all.”

The nuclear deal is threatened not just by assaults from Congress and foot-dragging by the Obama administration. The Supreme Court has also piled on. Last month, it ruled that victims of terror attacks said to have been plotted in Iran may sue to collect up to $2 billion in impounded Iranian assets. Iran, which denies involvement in the attacks, furiously denounced this as “theft of the assets and properties of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

Iranians opposed to the nuclear deal are doing all they can to make Iran look bad in the world. They are behind a new crackdown on dissent, the arrest of foreigners, continued executions, and ballistic missile tests — which they hope will turn Americans against the nuclear deal. Some in Washington are eagerly rushing into their trap.

The nuclear deal with Iran was a major advance for American and global security. It is in our interest to see the deal fully implemented. Opponents in Congress are trying to undermine it. The Obama administration, which worked mightily to secure the deal, has not worked hard enough to assure that Iranians see some benefit from it. If true sanctions relief does not begin soon, the coalition of “mad mullahs” in Tehran and Washington could succeed in killing or crippling the nuclear deal. That would be bad for everyone who seeks a freer Iran and a more peaceful Middle East.

Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.
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