We need a realistic debate on the Iran deal

Secretary of State John Kerry led the US delegation in the Iran nuclear talks.
Getty Images
Secretary of State John Kerry led the US delegation in the Iran nuclear talks.

With the Iran nuclear deal finally a print-on-paper reality, Congress must now do something contrary to its character: Think seriously about a matter where it’s easier to pander than ponder.

President Obama established the correct frame of analysis in his Wednesday press conference. The real choice here is a diplomatic deal or military action. Those who favor a military strike should say so.

And they should then specify why military action now is preferable to embracing an agreement that will extend Iran’s breakout time — the period needed to make enough fissile material for one bomb — from several months to a year, and keep it there for at least a decade.


Further, those who insist on the complete dismantling of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and assert that that’s achievable if we simply screw sanctions down tighter need to acknowledge two realities.

Get Today in Opinion in your inbox:
Globe Opinion's must-reads, delivered to you every Sunday-Friday.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

First, the US can’t unite the rest of the world around the idea that Iran isn’t entitled to a civilian (that is, power-generating) nuclear program. Under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Iran can claim a legal right to such a program.

What the major powers have been able to agree on is that Iran can’t have a nuclear bomb.

Further, as Obama and Kerry note, if Congress manages to scuttle this deal, we won’t get our negotiating partners to agree to tougher sanctions. Rather, they will abandon the sanctions regime. The net result would be less, not more, economic pressure on Iran.

Sober consideration also means rejecting dishonest arguments. Almost as soon as Obama finished his press conference, Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee took to CNN to declare that this was an agreement based on trust. Several hours later, Rick Perry doubled down on that claim.


That, frankly, is campaign-trail codswallop. In fact, the pact relies on a comprehensive mine-to-waste-cycle inspections regime by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which will have unprecedented access to Iran’s nuclear facilities and acceptable access to its military sites. With that will come an ability to judge whether Iran is cheating. If so, the economic sanctions can be reimposed — and all the options we have now would still be on the table.

We will surely hear that any risk, no matter how remote, of Iran employing a covert program to race to nuclear breakout will somehow put Israel in mortal danger. There, two points are instructive.

Many US citizens have lived with the possibility of nuclear annihilation for their entire lives. Although that prospect has diminished considerably since the end of the Cold War, the risk still exists. One reason the US and the former USSR survived the nuclear age was the concept of mutually assured destruction. That is, the realization that if one nuclear power attacks another, the attacker will also suffer monumental destruction.

Nuclear-armed Israel could obviously destroy Iran several times over. Even if Iran someday acquired a weapon, that prospect would be a powerful deterrent to its use. That being the case, the notion that this deal is unacceptable if there exists even a tiny chance of Iran secretly developing a bomb is simply wrong-headed.

Secretary of State John Kerry has produced an agreement that, considered in totality and within the context of real-world reality, is a good one. The president has started this debate in a formidable way. Persuasion and polemics will now go on for two months. Throughout, the questions for critics should be a variant of the one Obama posed on Wednesday: What, exactly, is your realistic alternative?

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeScotLehigh.