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The nuclear deal with Iran [Editorial]

Since the Iran nuclear deal was announced late Saturday, the criticism has been predictable. Israel's leadership isn't happy; neither is Saudi Arabia's. And there's a customary skepticism in Congress, particularly from Republicans, the most outlandish of whom see it as part of a grand scheme to keep their attacks on Obamacare off the front page.

But at its heart, the accord is historic not because it ensures Iran won't develop nuclear weapons but because it starts a process by which that goal might be accomplished. The agreement might be most accurately described as something of a holding action — for six months Iran has pledged to constrain its nuclear development and, in return, the U.S. and its negotiating partners have offered some temporary financial relief by unfreezing Iran's own oil money held in foreign banks.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has described the deal as an "historic mistake," and that would be true if Secretary of State John Kerry had returned from Munich, instead of Geneva, claiming he had achieved peace in our time. The U.S. and its allies have not dropped all economic sanctions against Iran, and we hear nobody from President Barack Obama on down claiming that Iran's nuclear ambitions are no longer to be feared.

Indeed, the bigger mistake would have been to accept nothing short of perfection. Surely, baby steps are better than none at all. What the U.S. has won is an opportunity to continue down a path of trade-offs — further constraints placed on Iran's nuclear program in return for further softening of the sanctions.

The document does not grant Iran a "right" to enrich uranium. And it upgrades the ability of outsiders to verify Iran's behavior — and to spot cheating. It caps the country's inventory of centrifuges, neutralizes portions of its nuclear stockpile, halts work on a plutonium reactor, provides access to nuclear inspectors and forbids enriching uranium beyond reactor-grade levels. All positive first steps.

Is this the best the world could get from the debilitating sanctions placed on Iran? Might greater concessions been extracted at the bargaining table? We don't know. But it's clear the alternative to this act of diplomacy — further ratcheting up of sanctions in hopes that Iran might eventually cry "uncle," or direct military intervention were the only possible alternatives, with the former looking like a fantasy and the latter too awful to contemplate. Moreover, this provides an opportunity to determine whether the more moderate rhetoric coming from Iran's new president, Hassan Rowhani, is genuine and backed by the clerics who wield ultimate power in Iran without taking any steps that would be irreversible.

What is the worst that this deal can represent? Iran could break its promises and then the world would be exactly where it was before the document was signed by representatives of the U.S., Germany, Russia, France, Great Britain and China. The sanctions would be reimposed and the process would be regarded as a failure.

Clearly, there are vested interests who do not want to see any further normalization of U.S.-Iran relations. Some of them are important U.S. allies. But they are not the ones to define this nation's foreign policy, and they should not be allowed to sabotage a peace process that may yet produce a truly historic accord.

The odds of success remain long. That's the realistic view. But surely the American people are willing to give peace a chance. That can't happen if we aren't willing to allow some softening of hard-line positions (and emotions) of the past.

If the Senate wishes to move forward with tougher sanctions against Iran — imposing them if the interim agreement is breached or allowed to expire — that would seem reasonable. It was sanctions, as critics like Sen. Chuck Schumer have pointed out, that brought Iran to the negotiating table, not the goodness of their hearts.

But it would be a huge mistake to end this process just as it has barely begun. The agreement may not make the world a safer place with absolute certainty, but it does move the world in that direction. Not because it empowers Iranian moderates or even guarantees a nuclear-free Iran but because it begins a process that could substantially reduce the nuclear threat.

If it also sends a message to nations in the Middle East and elsewhere that the U.S. is capable of resolving conflicts through diplomacy and not just military intervention, so much the better.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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