December 8, 2013
Six of the world’s major powers (the so-called P5 plus one) reached a historic phased agreement with Iran to limit its nuclear development to peaceful uses. It’s difficult to overstate this accomplishment, which bridges 33 years of broken diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Iran. The change has come as the result of an intense, unrelenting campaign of tough sanctions, military warnings and secret negotiations by President Obama and U.S. allies.
It is equal in importance to President Ronald Reagan’s historic breakthrough with the Soviet Union on nuclear weapons. “Trust, but verify,” Reagan repeatedly said. The structure of the agreement with Iran, with Secretary of State John Kerry taking a leading role in the negotiations, maintains that principle. This is a temporary, six-month agreement. There are steps of trust that Iran must take — steps that will be verified by the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency. In return, sanctions will be lessened, Iran will have access to about 7 percent of its frozen assets, and three-quarters of its oil revenues during this period will go into restricted accounts. The agreement includes unprecedented oversight and transparency. If Iran violates the agreement, the sanctions remain — and increase.
“We can begin to chip away at the mistrust between our two nations,” President Obama said in his press conference announcing the agreement. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said, “I hope we can start restoring the lost confidence.”
No agreement between any nations with a history of suspicions and distrust is possible without a willingness to take small, verifiable steps. There is a chorus against even these steps, including the unfortunately not unexpected reaction of some Congressional Republicans.
But we have a choice. We can listen to warmongers and second-guessers who want to humiliate Iran regardless of the consequences. Or we can focus on the goal, which often requires, as Reagan recognized, allowing the other side its dignity.
J Street, the self-described “political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans,” tweeted, “This is a good deal.” The U.S. State Department release said the agreement addresses “our most urgent concerns including Iran’s enrichment capabilities; its existing stockpiles of enriched uranium; the number and capabilities of its centrifuges; and its ability to produce weapons-grade plutonium using the Arak reactor.” “In return,” State says, “the P5 plus one will provide limited, temporary, targeted, and reversible relief to Iran…the overwhelming majority of the sanctions (remain) in place.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, though, called the agreement a “historic mistake,” and said Israel is not bound by the deal and reserves the right to defend itself. Reserving the right to defend one’s self does not make the agreement a mistake. Trust but verify, and perhaps cautious optimism, were expressed by Israeli President Shimon Peres: “I would like to say to the Iranian people: You are not our enemies and we are not yours. There is a possibility to solve this issue diplomatically.”
Before Netanyahu’s response becomes a gossip fest, we should note that President Obama called him this past Sunday. The two “reaffirmed their shared goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” Obama told Netanyahu that the U.S. and Israel should begin consultations immediately regarding efforts to negotiate a comprehensive solution. He said Israel has good reason to be skeptical about Iran’s intentions.
And Secretary of State Kerry said that today that the military option is still “on the table” if Iran does not live up to its part of the deal.
The agreement with Iran, negotiated not by the United States alone, but by six of the world’s major powers, is a confidence-building “trust, but verify” plan. For example, Mark Hibbs, a senior associate of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, argued that Iran’s Arak reactor construction should be suspended. Indeed, the French stopped an agreement during previous meetings over the Arak reactor. This agreement stops its construction.
President Obama said in his announcement, “We have halted the progress of the Iranian nuclear program, and key parts of the program will be rolled back … In these negotiations, nothing will be agreed to until everything is agreed to.
“If Iran does not fully meet its commitments during this six month phase, we will turn off the relief, and ratchet up the pressure.” We are not there yet. As Kerry said, Iran will have to prove itself with actions.
Still, this is a first step, and it’s a win (a) for U.S. security — Iran’s nuclear program is frozen for six months; (b) for U.S. Intelligence — more real-time inspections than ever before; (c) for U.S. global leadership and credibility — President Obama brought all the world’s great powers on board and we are all now a little more secure. President John F. Kennedy said in his inaugural address, “Let us begin anew — remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”
Fifty years after his death, his words are still true. President Obama is making them real.
Donna Brazile is a senior Democratic strategist, a political commentator and contributor to CNN and ABC News, and a contributing columnist to Ms. Magazine and O, the Oprah Magazine.