Americans are divided over whether or not to accept the deal with Iran regarding its nuclear program. The numbers – deep cuts in enriched uranium stocks and centrifuges – and the most intrusive inspection regime ever make the deal look good. But even those who believe it defuses the Middle East's literally most explosive situation for nearly a generation – a world-politics eternity – must acknowledge that many Americans are dissatisfied.
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Though the lock-step in which Republicans approach it might suggest otherwise, the national security stakes are so high that opposition should not be dismissed as partisan politics or personal ambition. Some significant Democrats also oppose their party's president on this. Then there's Israel's opposition to the deal. While the United States is Israel’s consistent friend and supporter, one must understand that Americans do not reflexively substitute an Israeli political leader’s judgment for their own on such a grave matter.
Many worry Iran will have more resources to pursue dangerous policies, but the bipartisan consensus was always that preventing a possible bomb was the objective, and it is very late to move goalposts. The United States can meet conventional, asymmetrical or terrorist threats resulting from disagreement with Iran more freely with the nuclear issue off the table.
How one assesses today's Iran goes far toward determining one's view. Those who agree with New York Times columnist David Brooks that "Iran is a fanatical, hegemonic, hate-filled regime," essentially unchanged from 35 years ago when it held American diplomats hostage, are skeptical. Those who agree with the Economist special edition that last fall concluded Iran was becoming a "mature and modern" state, with few operational traces of its old ideological fervor, are inclined toward optimism.
In either case, however, crisis diplomacy is about compromise with troublesome states, hard-eyed mutual interest and tough verification, not trust.
What remains is the opponents' basic argument: that the deal is imperfect and a better one is still possible. U.S. President Barack Obama exaggerates when he says opponents are silent about how they would achieve this. They offer two alternatives. A distinct minority implies there is a military answer, but most agree with deal supporters that war is unnecessary and undesirable. They claim more of the economic and political pressure that brought Iran to the table would force more concessions.
The existing deal is not perfect. A longer timeline for restraints on the nuclear program or renunciation of enrichment would have been ideal, but diplomacy is not about perfection: concessions must be made to obtain concessions.
To turn down the deal is more dangerous than moving forward with it because this was not a bilateral American negotiation with Iran. It was an Iran-and-the-world negotiation, with all five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany representing the latter. The overwhelming global majority considers the deal fair and good. The United Nations Security Council welcomed it unanimously.
The operational crux is that if the United States walks away and tries to apply additional pressure to get Iran to say the diplomatic equivalent of "uncle," most of the world, including Europe and rising powers like India and South Korea, not to mention Russia and China, will not follow it. They will blame Washington for breaking the deal; the sanctions regime will crumble, and Iran will achieve much of the economic relief it seeks and be freed to pursue its nuclear program with none of the restraints it accepted.
The U.S. can maintain its sanctions, but without multilateral coordination they would be less effective. If it punished third countries for dealing with Iran, it would risk their willingness to continue to accept the U.S. financial hegemony that the dollar's global reserve currency status has buttressed since World War II.
If implemented, the deal may eventually allow the United States and Iran to cautiously explore additional areas, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, where there may be sufficient mutual interest for more cooperation. But no one can be certain.
In 15 years, when many of the restraints come off, Iran may be a state in which a population, 60 percent of which is today under age 35, has compelled pragmatic changes in its approach to the wider world. But no one can confidently predict 2030.
The question Congress and the American people must answer is more immediate. Is the country safer if it sticks with this deal, in harmony with most of the world, tries to make it work, and retains good prospects to lead a strong coalition if Iran ultimately goes for a bomb? Or should it stand nearly alone, diplomacy in tatters, while Iran gains great political and economic benefits and freedom of action as the internationally-regarded reasonable and aggrieved party?
Jon Greenwald is vice president (research and publications) of the International Crisis Group, a leading conflict prevention organization, and a retired senior U.S. diplomat.