Op-Eds

Earlier this month, the news coming out of Iran was grim.

Two small U.S. Navy vessels with a total of 10 crewmembers strayed into Iranian territorial waters.  They were detained by Iran and appeared on Iranian television.  The American vessels were somewhere they should not have been.  It was an honest mistake, but as a naval flight officer who served five years in a hot war in Southeast Asia and for another 18 years as a P-3 aircraft mission commander, it is a mistake we never want to make.  Defense Secretary Ash Carter acknowledged that an error had been made, and the sailors were released unharmed within 24 hours of being detained. In years past, a misunderstanding like this might have led to a military confrontation or worse, but with the advent of our new, more cooperative relationship with Iran, this incident was resolved peacefully and quickly.

The peaceful resolution of this volatile situation reaffirmed my support for the historic agreement reached last year with Iran by the United States and our five negotiating partners. While the debate in Congress was intense, I ultimately voted for the agreement last fall because it created a clear path toward the end of Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons for years and, hopefully, forever. It also laid a foundation for Iran to engage in more productive diplomatic relationships with America and other nations around the globe, which I believe will yield dividends far beyond the peaceful resolution of the naval incident involving our two countries.

Last weekend, however, we welcomed even more encouraging developments. Following many months of intrusive inspections, international weapons inspectors concluded that Iran had actually followed through on its pledge to dismantle large portions of its nuclear program that were not clearly intended for peaceful purposes. All but two percent of its enriched uranium has been shipped out of the country.  Nearly 15,000 centrifuges for enriching uranium have been dismantled. That leaves Iran with only its least sophisticated centrifuges, which can be used solely for peaceful purposes. A special reactor for producing the kind of plutonium needed for a nuclear bomb will produce no more.  It has been filled with concrete instead. All of this was completed a lot more quickly than most of us had expected, too.

As this progress was being reviewed and certified by international authorities, the Iranians released five individuals, all dual U.S.-Iranian citizens, they had been holding for several years. Three of the Americans we knew about. Two we did not. Four of the five were flown immediately to a U.S. medical facility in Germany for checkups and tests before heading home.  One has chosen to remain in Iran. Whenever my colleagues and I spoke or met with senior Iranian officials in recent years, we consistently called on them to release our citizens who we believed were being detained unjustly. Secretary of State Kerry and other Obama administration officials did so, as well. Bob Levinson, a former FBI agent, who was last seen in Iran eight years ago, remains missing. My colleagues and I, along with the Obama administration, will continue to press Iran for information about his whereabouts, despite that government’s insistence that it has no knowledge of his current status.

In exchange for the release of the five Americans, the United States freed seven Iranians who had been charged or convicted of violating American embargoes, and we also removed the names of 14 others from international wanted lists. This exchange is sensible and pragmatic. The four Americans who wanted to return home will now do so, and the seven Iranians are free to return to Iran if they so choose.

Last weekend, when international teams of nuclear inspectors gave the green light, the United States and European nations followed through on their implementation requirements and began lifting crippling economic sanctions that have been in place for years. The relief will only be maintained if Iran continues to hold up its end of the bargain. The nuclear deal’s one-strike-and-you’re-out policy gives the United States the power to reimpose sanctions unilaterally if Iran cheats or fails to meet its obligations. This sends a very clear message to Iran that it cannot afford to play games with nuclear inspectors or backtrack on its obligations without suffering serious consequences.

In fact, as those nuclear sanctions were being lifted, the United States simultaneously imposed sanctions on eleven companies and individuals who have aided Iran in violating U.N. mandates by developing and testing its ballistic missile program. As this balanced action shows, our relationship with Iran won't consist solely of carrots. There may well be other times when sticks are needed to try to curb the regime's behavior toward us and our allies, including Israel.

The lifting of nuclear sanctions, coupled with the imposition of new missile sanctions is an important reminder that the nuclear deal with Iran will not solve all of the disagreements between our two countries. Iran still supports terrorist groups like Hezbollah, props up the Assad regime in Syria, tests ballistic missiles in defiance of U.N. Security Council Resolutions, and fails to recognize Israel's right to exist. We must continue to press Iran on these points and use our full set of economic and diplomatic tools to ‎convince the country to change its behavior.

Having said that, the progress that’s been made with Iran overall is encouraging and, frankly, unexpected given the relatively short amount of time it’s taken to accomplish. We have witnessed the first major test of the nuclear deal, and Iran appears to have lived up to its obligations thus far.

The events of the past few weeks have played out as part of the run-up to the parliamentary elections that will be held next month in Iran. The stakes are very high.  These elections will serve as a referendum on the policies of President Rouhani and his administration – policies like the nuclear deal – that have been criticized by Iran’s Supreme Leader and the leadership of the Revolutionary Guard.  President Rouhani must be able to demonstrate to voters that the difficult decisions he has made will truly advance the well-being of his people.

Despite claims by critics here in the United States that Iran will use its sanctions relief only for nefarious activities, the people of Iran appear far more focused on rebuilding their moribund economy and decaying transportation system. If the choice is between guns or butter, most Iranians appear ready to choose butter. We should make that an easy choice for them. We should continue to show the people of Iran that their cooperation and commitment to peace will be rewarded with economic opportunity and the shedding of Iran’s status as a pariah in the international community.

Some may say that by engaging with Iran and trying to enable peaceful resolutions to our disputes, America is showing weakness. But, in fact, pragmatic and forward thinking American foreign policy must look beyond the rhetoric of the current regime. Iran is a relatively young country of 78 million people today.  Their average age is under 25.  They are well educated.  The lion’s share of them does not remember the Iranian revolution of 1979 or the cruel Shah whom we supported until his ouster. This new generation of Iranians seems ready and willing to usher in a new era of better relations between their country, the United States and other nations of the world. For the sake of our security, our allies’ security and the stability of the Middle East, we would be wise to support, where appropriate, the calls of these young people for reform and their aspirations to reconnect Iran to the international community.

This op-ed ran in the Delaware News Journal