President Barack Obama got a welcome boost to his campaign to forge a deal limiting Iran's nuclear program this week when a distinguished group of retired generals and admirals released an open letter calling on Congress to ratify the accord as "the most effective means currently available to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons."
The president faces an uphill fight to win congressional approval of the measure when lawmakers return to Washington after the August recess. The fact that the nation's former top military leaders unequivocally support the agreement with Iran may not in itself be enough to prevent a Republican-controlled House and Senate from rejecting the deal. But the letter's arguments could well sway wavering Democrats in both chambers to sustain a promised presidential veto if their GOP colleagues vote to scrap the accord.
The statement, signed by three dozen high-ranking retired officers, asserts that "there is no better option to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon," and that "military action would be less effective than the deal, assuming it is fully implemented." The officers go on to point out that "if the Iranians cheat, our advanced technology, intelligence and the inspections will reveal it, and U.S. military options remain on the table." Moreover, the letter also contained an unmistakable warning: "If the deal is rejected by America, the Iranians could have a nuclear weapon within a year," it said. "The choice is that stark."
The military leaders' letter comes on the heels of a similar message from the nation's scientific community mirroring its views. On Saturday, 29 of the nation's top nuclear scientists and Nobel laureates, including physicist Richard L. Garwin, who helped design the world's first hydrogen bomb, wrote to Mr. Obama in support of the agreement with Iran, calling it "an innovative agreement, with much more stringent constraints than any previously negotiated non-proliferation framework."
The scientists noted the proposed accord "limits the level of enrichment of the uranium that Iran can produce, the amount of enriched uranium it can stockpile, and the number and kind of centrifuges it can develop and operate." It also included an ominous warning that without an accord Iran might be only "a few weeks" away from producing enough fissile material to build a bomb — far closer than the three months U.S. negotiators had previously estimated.
Secretary of State John Kerry has vigorously defended the Iran deal as the last best hope of preventing that from happening short of war. This week he reiterated that the idea that negotiators could go back to the drawing board and win a better deal is a non-starter, and we believe him. If the U.S. were to suddenly abandon the agreement it has spent the last two years working out with Tehran, it's a certainty our negotiating partners would abandon us, the crippling economic sanctions that forced Iran to the bargaining table would crumble, and there would be virtually no chance of enlisting international support for military action against Tehran's nuclear facilities if it came to that.
The deal in hand may not be perfect — what agreement ever is? — but it's far better than the alternatives. Those who think we can simply sit back and wait for Iran to come up with a better offer are dreaming.
Mr. Obama has been criticized for taking an aggressive stance toward opponents of the deal, which includes virtually all congressional Republicans as well as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has called any plan that allows Iran to maintain its nuclear infrastructure an existential threat to his country. He and others have accused the president of dismissing critics' concerns as ideologically driven partisan sniping rather than as a thoughtful response to legitimate national security issues.
The president may indeed be fed up with what he sees as Republican intransigence aimed at stymieing his every policy initiative, be it foreign or domestic. But the question at hand remains how to deter Iran's nuclear ambitions, and those calling for the U.S. to reject the deal that's on the table still haven't come up with a better alternative than the agreement negotiated in Vienna.