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opinion | Michael A. Cohen

Iran deal an example of how foreign policy should be conducted

Secretary of State John Kerry (second from left) and staff members watched a tablet in Lausanne as President Obama delivered remarks in Washington about the outline of the Iran nuclear deal Thursday.
Secretary of State John Kerry (second from left) and staff members watched a tablet in Lausanne as President Obama delivered remarks in Washington about the outline of the Iran nuclear deal Thursday.REUTERS

To paraphrase Vice President Joe Biden, Thursday’s announcement that the United States, its international allies, and Iran signed a framework for a nuclear agreement is a big . . . deal.

While there is still work to be done to get a final agreement, the framework hammered out in Lausanne, Switzerland, represents the single most effective tool for limiting Iran’s nuclear ambitions. President Obama put it well Thursday — the only other alternative to stopping Iran from getting a bomb is war, and that’s not much of an alternative.

The agreement upholds international norms and longstanding international agreements on preventing nuclear proliferation, and it represents the will of the international community in forcing Iran to abide by those agreements.

The frameworks also far exceeds expectations. Iran has agreed to cut its number of centrifuges from 19,000 to around 6,000; it will reduce its stockpiles of enriched uranium by 97 percent; its breakout capacity (i.e., ability to produce material for a bomb) has been extended from 2-3 months to one year; its nuclear facilities at Arak and Fodrow will be modified and converted to peaceful purposes, and Iran will allow for intrusive IAEA monitoring at both locations.

That’s another reason why this framework is a big deal: Iran has agreed to unprecedented verification and supervision of all its facilities by the International Atomic Energy Association. IAEA inspectors will not only have access to the entire supply chain that supports Iran’s nuclear program, as well as to its uranium mines, but Iran will be required to grant access to “suspicious sites” or covert facilities anywhere in the country.

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Iran also gets something big in return — an end to crippling sanctions and the ability to maintain a peaceful nuclear enrichment program. In other words, both sides can walk away from the deal claiming victory.

But here’s the biggest reason why the agreement is such a big deal — it’s a much-needed reminder of how foreign policy is supposed to be conducted.

In the last several days, The New York Times has called this diplomatic initiative an “audacious gamble.” The Washington Post suggested that Switzerland would “give credence to [President] Obama’s core belief that the United States must be open to negotiations with its enemies.”

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Perhaps the George W. Bush years and the constant talk of unilateralism, a steadfast refusal to negotiate with terrorists and “evildoers,” and the prizing of military means for furthering US interest has warped our memories. Perhaps the Republicans’ incessant and hyperbolic denunciations of US diplomacy with Iran has caused us to view talking as something akin to treason.

But dealing directly with adversaries and negotiating arms control agreements is the norm in American foreign policy. For decades, US leaders — Democrats and Republicans — repeatedly sat with Soviet leaders to reduce the two countries’ nuclear stockpiles and prevent conflict. We negotiated with North Korea over its nuclear program (not to mention ending the Korean War), Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic over peace in the Balkans, the North Vietnamese over the war in Vietnam — even Iran, to gain the release of American hostages. In other words, there is nothing audacious or unusual about talking to countries and leaders who we consider enemies. It is how foreign policy is conducted.

To be sure, there are still hurdles to be surmounted between now and the signing of a final accord, particularly on the phasing out of international sanctions. This agreement does not mean that US and Iranian leaders will soon be joining hands and singing Kumbaya. Iran remains one of the worst authoritarian governments in the world. In Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere, US and Iranian interests will continue to come in conflict. But on the narrow yet important issue of nuclear proliferation, Iran, the United States, and the international community have come together to reach an agreement that is in the interests of all concerned to decrease the potential for conflict — and nuclear proliferation — in the region. And that’s a big deal.

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Michael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.

Related:

John Kerry: A critical deal with Iran, but more work to be done

Nicholas Burns: How Obama can win on Iran

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi and Nader Entessar: Nuclear deal could reset US-Iran relations

Colin Nickerson: Can the US-Iran rift be healed?

Michael A. Cohen: Iran deal-making is about the least worst option