President Barack Obama won a major victory this week when Maryland's Barbara Mikulski, after much deliberation, became the 34th U.S. senator to announce her support for the nuclear accord with Iran. Senator Mikulski's pledge to back the president's veto of an expected Republican-sponsored resolution that would kill the agreement means that whatever happens next, the landmark accord negotiated by the administration and its diplomatic partners over the last two years is virtually a done deal. Hers was a laudable example of statesmanship under tremendous pressure. Maryland's junior senator, Ben Cardin, made a similarly exhaustive effort to vet the agreement and announced today that he will oppose it. We understand his reservations. He is right that there is risk either in moving forward with the deal or in opposing it, but we agree with Senator Mikulski that the deal represents the best chance of restraining Iran's nuclear ambitions in the forseeable future and avoiding armed conflict.
Maryland's two senators have been lobbied heavily by both supporters and opponents of what may become Mr. Obama's most significant foreign policy legacy. Critics of the accord, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, charge that any agreement that leaves Iran with most or all of its nuclear infrastructure intact is a "bad deal" that threatens both the U.S. and its allies because it eventually could allow Tehran to build a bomb — if not now, then after the agreement expires in 10 to 15 years. They also say Iran can't be trusted to hold up its end of the bargain, and that even if it does it will use billions of dollars in assets now frozen in foreign banks as a result of international sanctions to meddle in the affairs of its neighbors as the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism.
In a statement this week, Ms. Mikulski acknowledged that "No deal is perfect, especially one negotiated with the Iranian regime." But, in a painstaking account of the questions she raised and the answers she got, the senator makes a case that this imperfect deal is worth taking. She said that after weeks of study, she has come to the conclusion that the agreement is sufficient to block Iran's pathways to a bomb, that it is verifiable and that the international inspections regime can work. She acknowledged reservations about the pace with which sanctions could be lifted and with the lack of certainty as to whether the other nations involved in the negotiations would actually restore sanctions if there is a violation.
But here she made an excellent point. If we have doubts about whether Europe, China and Russia would restore sanctions if Iran cheats on the deal, what makes anyone think those nations would keep their present sanctions intact if the U.S. unilaterally walks away from this accord?
Mr. Cardin outlined his reasoning in an hour-long conversation with The Sun's editorial board today , and he quite rightly emphasized concerns that the agreement doesn't do enough to ensure that Iran doesn't use undeclared nuclear sites to inch closer to a bomb. But we are not as confident in his assessment that rejecting the deal would allow the United States to continue buying time through negotiations until international sanctions force Iran to agree to a stronger deal. Rejecting an accord that has been embraced nearly universally not only by our negotiating partners but by the world community at large would isolate the United States and Israel and would weaken other nations' resolve to continue sanctions. Mr. Cardin says he is certain that our negotiating partners would quickly reapply sanctions — or, if necessary, provide support for military action — if Iran races to build a bomb. But even if that's true, wouldn't we be in a stronger position, both in our ability to detect malfeasance and to rally the international community to address it, if we fully cooperate with this accord?
Despite what critics of the deal say, there's no way the U.S. could plausibly get a better deal if it just sat back and waited for Iran to make a more generous offer. The more likely result would be that the international sanctions regime would collapse, American sanctions alone wouldn't suffice, and Iran would be free to develop nuclear weapons without any interference by international monitors. Before Tehran agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment program two years ago, experts estimated it may have been only a few months away from having enough fissile material to build a bomb. Absent this agreement, the U.S. would have little alternative except to go to war in order to stop it — air strikes alone might not suffice and would likely lead to broader conflict.
Though we side with Senator Mikulski, we wholeheartedly support Senator Cardin's efforts now to strengthen the agreement by filling in through legislation some of the details that are left ambiguous. It is entirely possible that Republicans will oppose any efforts to make the deal work better in an effort to tarnish President Obama's foreign policy legacy. But if Mr. Cardin's vote against the deal puts him in a better position to argue for improvements to it, all the better. While he may not prove influential over the agreement's enactment, he can help ensure its success.