Aug 28 2015
This August, I did something that many critics of the Iran deal have yet to do: I read it. Doing so reminded me of another time when America was locked in intense negotiations. In 1999, the Clinton Administration was attempting to broker a two-state solution between the Israelis and the Palestinians. I had several conversations in Israel with Prime Minister Ehud Barak in early July where he conveyed his sincere desire to seize the day. That same week, I spoke with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Ramallah, sharing with him my conversations with Barak, and urging Arafat to negotiate in earnest. The negotiations that followed presented Arafat the best land-for-peace proposal the Palestinians would ever receive. Unbelievably, he turned it down. Ultimately, he could not take yes for an answer.
Nearly 16 years later, another transformative opportunity has presented itself. America and our five negotiating partners – Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China – have reached an historic agreement with Iran to end their pursuit of nuclear weapons for years and, maybe, forever. The deal provides Iran an opportunity to rebuild its economy and shed the pariah status it's borne for decades, a status that belies the culture and history of that nation.
Over the past two years, I've had countless meetings with people from Delaware who fall on both sides of this issue. Some are vehemently opposed to any deal with Iran, and others believe we absolutely must have a deal in order to avoid war. I earnestly considered all these points of view as I reviewed the text of the deal and made my decision to support it.
Our ability to reach this agreement is largely attributable to the sea change in Iranian political leadership. Gone is hardliner President Ahmadinejad. Iranians overwhelmingly elected Hassan Rouhani, a western-educated moderate, in 2013. President Rouhani appointed a like-minded moderate, Javad Zarif, as Iran's foreign minister.
I first met Zarif in 2007 when he was Iran's ambassador to the United Nations, living in New York. Later, I asked him how he got along with Ahmadinejad. "Not well," he replied. "He doesn't trust me. I'll soon be gone." And soon he was, returning to Iran and disappearing from sight. I was certain I'd never see him again. Fortunately, I was wrong. President Rouhani pulled him from obscurity to serve as Secretary John Kerry's counterpart throughout these negotiations.
After two years, America and our five negotiating partners secured a deal that will do three things: first, block Iran's access to the weapons-grade material needed for a bomb; second, subject Iran to the most intrusive nuclear inspections in history; and, third, provide sanctions relief only after Iran takes irreversible steps to honor its commitments.
This is a good deal for America, our negotiating partners and the world. That's not just my view. It's also the view of scores of American national security leaders and former senior officials, as well as many of their Israeli counterparts.
Unfortunately, almost before the ink had dried on the deal, most of my Republican colleagues and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu had denounced it. Critics insist that America cannot trust Iran. I agree. While I believe Zarif and his team have negotiated in good faith, I still have serious doubts about their government. So does the Obama Administration, for that matter. That's why this deal is based on mistrust. If some future Iranian regime decides to violate the agreement, we'll know it. The deal imposes extremely intrusive inspections and provides us with sophisticated monitoring capabilities so that the world will know of any covert action by Iran that violates our agreement. This deal has a one-strike-and-you're-out system of penalties. If Iran tries to cheat, America can trigger the imposition of the same crippling sanctions without the consent of any other country. And if that's not enough of a hammer to ensure Iranian compliance, just remember that nothing in this deal constrains America’s ability to take action – military or otherwise – if Iran violates the agreement.
The stakes surrounding this deal couldn’t be higher. Current estimates assess Iran's nuclear program to be as close as two months away from a bomb. Without a deal, that time will only shrink. That's a stark comparison to what the deal would yield – an Iranian nuclear program that is at least a year away from a bomb for each of the next 15 years and, possibly, longer. This aspect of the deal was crafted largely under the leadership of U.S. Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz with broad input from our national laboratories. Moniz, an internationally acclaimed nuclear physicist, formerly of MIT, ironically began his teaching career there while his Iranian counterpart, Ali Akbar Salehi, was earning his doctorate at MIT. Working together, these two men changed the trajectory of the negotiations.
Critics argue that America should reject this deal and negotiate a better one. Good luck. Earlier this month, several of my colleagues and I met with representatives of our five negotiating partners. They told us bluntly that if Congress kills this deal, the broad coalition of countries imposing sanctions on Iran would collapse. These global sanctions were the leverage that forced Iran to the negotiating table, and the threat of re-imposing them will help keep Iran honest. If Congress rejects this deal now, a better one will not take its place, they declared. Instead, America’s leverage would be lost, along with our best chance to address this threat peacefully. In effect, they urged us to learn from Arafat’s mistake and take yes for an answer.
Finally, nearly every American who was alive on Sept. 11, 2001, remembers the horrifying images of that tragedy. What most Americans don’t remember is the image of thousands of Iranians who gathered in Tehran that night in a candlelight vigil in solidarity with America. I’ll never forget it, and the American people shouldn't either. Today, Iran is much more than the hardline Revolutionary Guard whose influence has begun to wane. Iran is a nation of over 78 million people whose average age is 25. Most of them weren't alive during the 1979 Iranian revolution. They don’t remember the brutal Shah we propped up for years and the anger it engendered. Most Iranians want a better relationship with America and the world. They’re ready to take yes for an answer. We should, too. This is a good deal for America and our allies, including Israel, one of our closest allies. And, oh yes. It beats the likely alternative – war with Iran – hands down.
This op-ed ran in The News Journal (link)