Opinion

opinion | George J. Mitchell

Congress should approve agreement to cut off Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon

The Bushehr nuclear power plant in the southern Iran.
AFP/Getty Images/file 2007
The Bushehr nuclear power plant in the southern Iran.

Iran must not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons. It would be a direct threat to Israel, and it would undermine the nuclear nonproliferation regime built over the past half-century by the nations of the world, with US leadership. Although many countries could become capable of producing nuclear weapons, only nine now have them. Most have voluntarily refrained, in reliance on the United States and on the nuclear nonproliferation agreement. If Iran becomes the 10th nuclear power, that restraint could collapse, and the number could grow quickly. That would be a serious threat to stability.

There are two ways to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon: through negotiation or by war. It is plain common sense to try negotiation first.

The agreement among the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France, Germany, and Iran will cut off Iran’s paths to a nuclear weapon and will put in place constraints and monitoring measures that will help to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program will be solely for peaceful purposes.

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There are two pathways to a nuclear weapon for Iran: through enrichment of uranium or the production of plutonium. The agreement cuts off both. Among other required actions, Iran will reduce its stockpile of enriched uranium by 98 percent, and it will be capped there for 15 years; it will reduce its operating centrifuges by two-thirds; and it will be allowed to enrich uranium to only 3.67 percent, far below the level needed for nuclear weapons.

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These and other actions required of Iran will be independently verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has a long history of inspecting and reporting on Iran’s nuclear program. As a result, Iran’s breakout time (the amount of time it would take to acquire enough fissile material for one nuclear weapon if Iran breaks all of its commitments) will be expanded from the current two to three months to more than a year.

Iran will not receive any new sanctions relief until after it verifiably completes important steps to roll back its program; if Iran does not keep its commitments, the sanctions will snap back into place.

Critics of the agreement have concentrated largely on a comparison between this agreement and what they regard as a perfect agreement. But of course a negotiated agreement involving adverse parties is by definition imperfect in some respects for each side. The real question is how the agreement compares to the alternatives. Here the critics have been mostly silent because a likely alternative to this agreement is war. It may ultimately come to that, but war should be a last resort, not a first option.

Some critics argue that because economic sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table we should reject the agreement and increase sanctions, and that will force Iran to capitulate. But that’s not likely to happen. The sanctions have been effective because they are universal, not unilateral by the United States. It bears emphasizing that this agreement is not just between the United States and Iran. Throughout the negotiations, five of the most important nations in the world have been on our side of the table: China, Russia, Britain, France, and Germany. They now are parties to the agreement and, crucially, to the sanctions. If Congress rejects the agreement, the sanctions will go from universal and effective to unilateral and ineffective. So those clamoring for an increase in sanctions will get the opposite of what they say they want.

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The hard reality is that the sanctions are going to erode over time. If that is the result of the agreement taking effect, it will happen only after Iran has verifiably taken the painful steps required of it in the agreement. But if the sanctions erode because the agreement is rejected and other countries refuse to increase or extend them, which is likely, Iran will get the benefits of the erosion and ultimately the end of sanctions without having had to do anything.

Other critics argue that we should not enter into the agreement because Iran cannot be trusted. But this agreement is not based on trust. It is, rather, based on verification through the most intrusive and comprehensive inspection regime adopted in the nuclear age. The United States has in the past entered into agreements with adversaries we didn’t trust. President Nixon signed a comprehensive agreement with communist China and President Reagan signed a treaty with the Soviet Union to reduce atomic weapons, even though China and the Soviet Union posed far greater threats to our national security than does Iran.

This agreement was unanimously approved by the 15 nations who are members of the United Nations Security Council and has the strong support of most of the nations of the world. Just this week, the six Gulf Arab nations — Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman — all of whom are deeply concerned about Iran, expressed their support for the agreement. Its rejection by Congress would be adverse to our national security. Its approval will be in our national interest and will be crucial to limiting the spread of nuclear weapons around the world.

George J. Mitchell was the US Senate majority leader. He also served as the chairman of the Northern Ireland peace negotiations and as US special envoy to the Middle East.