After two years of grueling negotiations, the Obama administration has finally pulled off a historic deal with Iran that resolves — at least for the time being — one of the most pressing foreign policy challenges facing the world: concerns that Iran could be building a nuclear bomb.
The agreement, which curbs Iran's nuclear program in exchange for lifting sanctions that have crippled the country, is far from perfect. No diplomatic compromise ever is. The deal's biggest flaw is that it curbs Iran's production of enriched uranium for only a decade. Limits on Iran's stockpile of enriched uranium last slightly longer: 15 years.
Nonetheless, this deal is better than the status quo. Iran currently possesses 10,000 kilograms of enriched uranium. Under the deal, the country will be forced to reduce that to 300 kilograms. Iran currently has about 20,000 centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium. Under the deal, it will be forced to dismantle all but 5,000 of them. Without an agreement, Iran would almost certainly return to full-scale uranium enrichment, forcing the United States and its allies closer to a possible military confrontation at a time of great instability in the region.
The deal buys the United States at least a decade of peace with Iran, after which a future US president will reevaluate the situation and decide if Iran's uranium enrichment program still represents a threat. Nothing under the agreement stops a future US president from exercising a military option against Iran at a later date. The hope is that the next 10 years will put Iran on a different path. Perhaps the strongest aspect of the agreement is that it provides for "snap back" sanctions if Iran cheats, enshrined in a legally-binding UN resolution.
Those who argue that the Obama administration should have piled on more sanctions instead of striking an agreement misunderstand the way international sanctions on Iran have worked. In order to hurt Iran's economy, the United States needed to get other countries to cooperate, including India, China, Japan, and South Korea, which all rely on Iranian oil. These countries only agreed to reduce their trade with Iran temporarily, for the specific purpose of getting Iran to the negotiation table. Their cooperation would not have lasted indefinitely. The State Department was already forced to grant waivers to a slew of countries for doing business with Iran. Had US officials walked away from negotiations without good reason, they would have had a hard time convincing the rest of the world to continue the embargo.
To be sure, in the coming weeks and months, many in Congress will try to kill this deal. Conservatives will accuse President Obama of weakness. They ought to remember that it was George W. Bush — not Obama — who first set out to negotiate with Iran. And while Obama's veto power could likely protect the deal in the event of a rejection by Congress, nothing would make America look weaker in the eyes of the world than the defeat of the president in a partisan vote on an issue as important as this.
For months, critics have accused Obama of making too many concessions. But so far, it looks as though Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the one who folded. As recently as last week, he rejected a 10-year curb on Iran's nuclear program and demanded that all sanctions be lifted immediately. But the agreement clearly spells out a decade of restrictions, and lifts sanctions in stages, as Iran fulfills its end of the bargain. Indeed, some US sanctions won't be lifted at all: The US trade embargo with Iran, put in place in the wake of the 1979 hostage crisis, will remain in place, with the exception of food, carpets, and airplane parts.
That's a sign that relations between the United States and Iran will take years, if not decades, to thaw. US officials have vowed to continue their efforts to block Iran's support for terrorism and its troublesome meddling in Yemen, Lebanon, and elsewhere. Meanwhile, Khamenei has vowed to continue his regime's revolutionary struggle against the United States. "Prepare yourselves for more fight against Arrogance," he tweeted three day ago. But Tuesday, as the deal was announced, his Twitter account fell silent.