The implementation of the U.S.-Iran nuclear accord over the weekend marked a milestone for the Obama administration's strategy of patient diplomacy to prevent Tehran from building a bomb. Under the terms of the agreement concluded last year, Iran has shipped 95 percent of its low-enriched uranium out of the country and disabled the core of a reactor that could have been used to produce plutonium and give Tehran a second path to fueling a nuclear weapon. In return, the U.S. and its partners agreed to lift international sanctions that had crippled Iran's economy. There's no question Mr. Obama's high-stakes diplomacy has made the world safer, at least for the next 10 to 15 years. But you'd never know that from the reaction of the president's Republican critics in Congress and on the campaign trail.
Last week, GOP presidential hopeful Sen. Ted Cruz warned darkly that Iran could develop a weapon that might kill millions along the Atlantic seaboard, though he didn't say how that might happen given the unprecedented inspection and verification process Iran agreed to, which would give International Atomic Energy monitors plenty of warning if Tehran cheated. Meanwhile, GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump told supporters in Washington last week that he had never "seen any transaction so incompetently negotiated" as the Iran nuclear accord, though he too declined to offer specifics about what he would have done differently. A chorus of Republicans have charged that the U.S. gave away too much just to secure an agreement and that Mr. Obama's diplomatic approach signaled American weakness rather than strength to our adversaries around the world.
But where's the evidence of that? On the contrary, everything that has happened in our relations with Iran recently suggests just the opposite: the prompt release of 10 U.S. sailors whose boats accidentally drifted into Iranian territorial waters, the release of an additional five U.S. civilians who had been held for years in Iranian prisons on trumped up charges, and the imposition of new sanctions against a dozen or so Iranian individuals and corporations suspected of aiding Iran's ballistic missile program. Less than a year ago the capture of the American sailors, for example, easily could have escalated into an international crisis. Instead it was resolved peacefully within a few hours thanks to the diplomatic lines of communication opened during the nuclear talks between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran's Western-educated foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Moreover, the hardliners in Tehran who opposed the nuclear deal have been dealt a serious setback by the more moderate faction represented by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Mr. Zarif. Both have emerged strengthened after fulfilling Mr. Rouhani's campaign pledge to end Iran's 35-year diplomatic isolation and rebuild its struggling economy, which large numbers of ordinary Iranians want to see happen. The hardliners can be expected to continue trying to undermine their rivals — the seizure of the U.S. sailors by elements of Iran's Revolutionary Guards may have been deliberately orchestrated to just that end — but the fact that Mr. Rouhani and Mr. Zarif appear to have defeated that effort for the moment at least suggests that the moderates still have the upper hand.
The greatest difficulty in dealing with Iran is that the country in effect has two governments, one the popularly elected administration of Mr. Rouhani, and the other the unelected clerical and military power center controlled by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. While Mr. Khamenei so far has backed Mr. Rouhani's goal of lifting the sanctions that have made Iran an international pariah and allowing it to rejoin the international community as a major player in global energy markets, he continues to spew anti-American venom in speeches that leave little doubt about his continuing hostility toward the West.
Iran's recent firing of ballistic missiles despite a Security Council ban on such tests, its continuing meddling in the affairs of neighboring states through proxies, and even its release of a demeaning video last week of the captured U.S. sailors kneeling with their hands behind their heads are proof that the U.S. can't afford to let down its guard against an aggressive and still dangerous regime. Nevertheless the nuclear deal represented a vindication of Mr. Obama's determination to pursue diplomacy as the preferred tool of an American strategy aimed at redefining U.S. leadership in a more constructive and realistic way. But the path to genuinely better relations with one of our most difficult regional adversaries will continue to be long and rocky.