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Outline of Iran deal offers the best chance to thaw relations

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif gestured as he spoke during a press conference to announce the outline of a deal between the West and his country.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif gestured as he spoke during a press conference to announce the outline of a deal between the West and his country.(AFP/Getty Images)

The broad parameters of the deal designed to curb Iran’s nuclear program, which were laid out on Thursday after marathon negotiation sessions in the Swiss city of Lausanne, offer the best chance in 35 years to thaw relations between the Islamic Republic and the West. The agreement isn’t perfect, nor is it final. But the concessions made by Iranian diplomats, and the level of specificity offered to the public, show that all sides were negotiating in good faith. It is now up to Congress to give the negotiators the time they need to finalize the deal — and they should do so by refraining from proposing more sanctions that could jeopardize months of hard work.

The agreement struck in Lausanne by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, Germany, and Iran is only a political deal — the technical details will by ironed out in further negotiations, and a final deal is scheduled to be signed on June 30. Iranian nuclear activity would be vastly reduced. European officials say that the number of operating centrifuges — which are vital for the production of enriched uranium needed for both nuclear reactors and weapons — would be cut in half.

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Although no Iranian facilities would be closed, international inspectors will be allowed unprecedented access to them. The reactor at the heavy water plant at Arak will be reconfigured so that weapons-grade plutonium cannot be produced. Uranium production at the underground bunker of Fordo would stop, and the facility would be turned into a research lab. Perhaps most critically, there are indications that Iran will allow inspectors into their site at Parchin, a military base where many believe Iran has conducted experiments aimed at developing a nuclear weapon.

If these provisions are met, the United States and the European Union will lift their financial, banking, and trade sanctions on Iran. United Nations sanctions on weapons technology will be lifted much more gradually. If Iran is found to have broken its promises, Western powers would be able to reinstate their sanctions. The deal is designed to allow a “breakout period” of at least one year, meaning that if Iran decided to build a bomb, it would take over a year to do so. Most aspects of the deal are expected to last for 10 years, although some may last longer.

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This deal is historic, and offers the best chance of normalizing relations between Iran and the West while making it much less likely that Iran can develop nuclear weapons. Still, many will no doubt see the agreement as unsatisfactory. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who views Tehran as an existential threat, will only be satisfied by almost total capitulation on the part of the Iranians. Many congressional Republicans agree with him.

But that point of view is unrealistic. The unprecedented sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic by the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations crippled the Iranian economy, but even that wasn’t enough to pressure them into shutting down their nuclear facilities. Threats of potential military action by Israel were similarly ineffective. These last 18 months of negotiations have done more to slow Iran’s nuclear ambitions than anything else that’s been tried by the international community.

That’s why it is vital that the diplomats hammering out the details are allowed to continue their good work. Congress should refrain from proposing any more sanctions on Iran. President Obama, for his part, needs to make a concerted effort to convince lawmakers on Capitol Hill and the American people of the merits of the deal. This will be easier said than done. Congressional Republicans are almost universally opposed to giving any ground to the Iranians. And Charles Schumer, the Democratic senator from New York who is expected to become Senate Minority Leader after Nevada’s Harry Reid retires, is skeptical about the talks. But this deal is the best chance America has had in almost two generations to bring Iran back into the international community — and to do it on American terms. That result is crucial to US interests. Obama needs to make that point clearly, and Congress needs to listen.

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

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

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Nicholas Burns: Will Congress torpedo Obama’s Iran deal?