It was always going to be a nail-biter, but the announcement today that Iran and six nations led by the United States had reached a historic agreement to limit Tehran's nuclear program was still a stunning development after nearly two years in the making. The deal holds out the promise of preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon for at least the next 10 to 15 years in exchange for a gradual lifting of the crippling economic sanctions that eventually forced Tehran to the bargaining table. Over the long run it could also ease open the door to a more productive relationship between the U.S. and Iran after decades of hostility and mistrust and ultimately emerge as President Barack Obama's most significant foreign policy legacy.
The marathon talks leading up to Tuesday's accord were the last best chance for both sides to avoid a confrontation that was in neither's interest and that threatened to further destabilize one of the world's most volatile regions in unpredictable and dangerous ways. Since a preliminary agreement was signed in April, the talks aimed at drafting a final accord have been extended twice as Tehran and Washington offered conflicting interpretations of how major sticking points such as international inspectors' access to Iranian nuclear sites and the timing of sanctions relief would be resolved. One U.S. official compared the process of overcoming the talks' final hurdles, which involved a U.S. arms embargo on conventional weapons and missiles for Iran, to the final pieces of a Rubik's Cube clicking into place.
Now the agreement awaits approval by Congress, which by law will have 60 days to accept, reject or take no action on the measure. President Obama has vowed to fight any changes to the deal negotiated by Secretary of State John Kerry, which he insists is "not built on trust, it is built on verification." But many Republicans, as well as some Democrats, denounced the results of Mr. Kerry's efforts. House Speaker John A. Boehner said "this 'deal' will only embolden Iran — the world's largest sponsor of terror — by helping stabilize and legitimize its regime." Wisconsin governor and 2016 presidential hopeful Scott Walker called the accord one of the United States' "worst diplomatic failures."
Republican reaction to the agreement mirrors the hard line taken against it by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who opposes any accord with Iran that permits it to maintain a nuclear capability that could eventually allow it to develop weapons. But the complete dismantling of Iran's nuclear infrastructure was never a realistic for goal the talks.
The only purpose such a demand serves is to make it easier for opponents of an accord to hide behind the idea that the U.S. could have gotten a better deal if it had been willing to walk away from the talks in Vienna. In fact, Mr. Kerry warned that the U.S. was prepared to do just that if the negotiations stalled, and a senior administration official characterized the deal on the table as actually better than the president expected.
That, of course, is not the same as saying it's a perfect deal. No agreement would have been. Whether the U.S. could have gotten an even better deal if it had been willing to hold out longer in Vienna, as Mr. Netanyahu insisted, is ultimately unknowable.On the other hand, the consequences of Congress rejecting the deal Mr. Kerry negotiated are all too easy to imagine. It would almost certainly wreck the international sanctions regime imposed on Iran because other countries would be unlikely to follow the United States' lead and instead would lift their sanctions unilaterally. That not only would weaken the most important leverage the U.S. has to restrain Iran's nuclear program, but by releasing billions of dollars into its accounts, it would also put Iran back on a path to a bomb in a greatly strengthened position. That's in neither our interest nor those of our allies in the region.
Republicans are right that we can't trust Iran, and we shouldn't. That's why the U.S. is insisting on a robust inspection and monitoring regime that can respond promptly to evidence of Iranian cheating. We need to thoroughly vet the details of this accord, and we need to examine Iran's nuclear sites and talk to its scientists who in the past may have carried out weapons research to establish a baseline for their future activities. But it would be a mistake to dismiss the Vienna accord out of hand, as some in Congress appear inclined to do. If the standard is that no agreement is better than any compromise because Iran can never be trusted, then the only alternative is war. That's in no one's interest.