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opinion | George J. Mitchell

Iran nuclear talks strike the right balance

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Negotiators from the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France, and Germany are in the final phase of their effort to reach agreement with Iran. Their goal is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. A nuclear-armed Iran would be a direct threat to Israel and could undermine a half-century of nonproliferation efforts, led by the United States. Although dozens of countries are capable of developing nuclear weapons, only nine have so far chosen to do so. Iran must not be the tenth. There are two ways to achieve that goal: by negotiation or through war.

The ongoing negotiation has already achieved more than its opponents thought possible. When the interim agreement was reached, in November 2013, President Obama’s critics denounced it as a sellout and a victory for Iran. They predicted that Iran would not keep its promises. Those claims proved to be false.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, verified that Iran met all its commitments under the interim agreement. But the fact that the critics were wrong once does not by itself mean that the final agreement will be worthy of support. That should depend on an objective analysis of its terms, especially as to verification. The White House has acknowledged that by describing the president’s goal in the negotiations as “reaching a long-term diplomatic resolution that verifiably prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon” (emphasis added).


The Supreme Leader and the president of Iran have repeatedly said that Iran does not want a nuclear weapon. But the actions of their government, documented over many years by the IAEA, contradict their words. So an agreement based solely on trust is out of the question. The crucial issue to be finally negotiated is how the six nations sitting across the table from Iran — and the rest of the world — will be able to verify that Iran does what it commits to do in an agreement.

The public debate in the United States has been dominated by two concerns. One is specific: how and when the sanctions on Iran will be lifted. The other is the broad assertion by the president’s critics in Congress that the agreement taking shape is so inadequate that the United States should walk away from the table, increase the sanctions, and wait for Iran to capitulate and come crawling back.

The discussion about sanctions relief has led to some confusion. The Iranians assert that relief should come immediately. Some Western officials have said that sanctions will be “phased out.” The public has to some extent misunderstood these remarks as suggesting that relief is on a timetable independent of other events. In fact, under the terms disclosed so far, relief from sanctions is tied directly to specific events, namely Iran’s taking the actions to which it commits in the agreement. The United States would suspend nuclear-related sanctions only after the IAEA verified that Iran had taken the concrete and necessary steps to cut off every pathway to develop a nuclear weapon and then, only later, after a substantial period of Iranian compliance, would the administration go to Congress to ask for the termination of sanctions. If Iran falters down the road, sanctions will snap back into place.


According to the White House, Iran agrees to reduce the number of its centrifuges from 19,000 to 6,100 (5,060 in operation). Iran agrees to shrink its 10,000-kilogram stockpile of enriched uranium to 300 kilograms. The underground enrichment facility at Fordow will be converted to a research center; no enrichment will take place there for at least 15 years. The plutonium-producing reactor at Arak will be permanently reconfigured, and Iran has committed indefinitely not to reprocess spent fuel, the process that separates out the pure plutonium needed for a bomb. Since the goal is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, the sooner Iran takes the required actions the better.

With respect to the alternative course proposed by the president’s critics, walking away and increasing the sanctions is not realistic. Sanctions on Iran are effective for many reasons — including the dominance of the United States in the financial world and the relatively low price of oil — but none is more important than the fact that these sanctions are not imposed by the United States alone. They are universal, and that’s why they’re effective. If the six countries on our side of the table reach an agreement with Iran that is scuttled by Congress, there is little or no possibility that our negotiating partners — especially China and Russia — will agree to extend and increase sanctions. And once the sanctions go from universal to unilateral, their effectiveness will decline steeply.


Although the president’s critics refuse to acknowledge it, the most likely outcomes of their approach are a nuclear-armed Iran or a war to prevent that result. Their alternative has the unintended effect of making the president’s approach look a lot better by comparison, especially if the final negotiations result in effective methods of verification.

Having been involved in high-profile negotiations in Northern Ireland and the Middle East, I’m aware that they are difficult to manage for two reasons: The first is that the issues are inevitably complex, the passions and mistrust are high, and the facts are in dispute. The second reason is the continuing need to balance the public’s right to know with the need for at least some degree of secrecy to encourage open and frank discussions among the participants. To date, President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have struck the appropriate balance. Their achievement in the interim agreement was significant. They now need and should have our patience and encouragement as they try to obtain a final agreement that will be worthy of our continued support.


Former US Senator George J. Mitchell is chairman emeritus of the international law firm DLA Piper. He served as the chairman of the peace negotiations in Northern Ireland and as US special envoy for Middle East peace. His latest book, “The Negotiator,” was published on May 5.


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