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Give Iran negotiators space to work

Now that President Barack Obama has signed a bill giving Congress, at its request, greater oversight authority over any potential Iran nuclear agreement — including the explicit opportunity to vote down the deal — the cacophony from those opposed to diplomatic negotiations with Iran has reached a new high.

Despite the fact that the details have yet to be finalized (a deadline has been set for June 30th), opponents are arguing that the agreement President Obama is close to reaching with Iran is a "bad deal" and that we should hold out for a "better deal" or abandon this process completely and increase pressure on Iran in a quest to force it to capitulate.

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But absent from these discussions is any compelling evidence that the proposed deal would fail to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons without our knowledge. This is why the U.S. and the international community imposed crippling sanctions on Iran and are now negotiating to block Tehran's path to the bomb. And in exchange for Iranian compliance with that mandate, we in turn will relieve the sanctions pressure. Diplomacy seeks mutual benefits, and we need to give it space to work.

There were strident criticisms of the interim agreement the P5+1 (the U.S., U.K., France, Russia, China and Germany) and Iran reached in November 2013, claiming that it included too many concessions to Iran, and that Tehran wouldn't abide by its terms.

But as we now know, it succeeded in what it set out to do: eliminate Iran's stockpile of higher enriched uranium and freeze and roll back many components of its nuclear program while negotiations for a final agreement took place. Indeed, Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, was initially a critic, but recently admitted that the interim agreement has been "fairly successful."

Yet opposition persists to the process itself as well as to the very promising framework agreement announced in April.

For example: the argument of the Hudson Institute's Michael Doran, who previously served as President George W. Bush's top official on Middle East policy. He delivered what Vox described as "the case against Obama's Iran deal that everyone should hear." But Mr. Doran doesn't specify how any of the contours of the framework — the limits on uranium enrichment, the elimination of the plutonium path to a bomb and the unprecedented inspection regime which monitors the entire fuel cycle — will fail to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons.

Instead, Mr. Doran simply proposes more sanctions, and if that doesn't work, war. "I think if [Iran's Supreme Leader] were put before a choice of 'Your nuclear program or severe military strikes,' he would think twice."

In fact, our imposition of more sanctions won't work because other nations won't join us in implementing them if the U.S. walks away from this deal. "I think the international community would be pretty reluctant, frankly, to contemplate a ratcheting up further the sanctions against Iran," Peter Westmacott, the British ambassador to the U.S., said recently.

The other alternative opponents are presenting is simply to call for a "better deal," usually involving a complete dismantlement of Iran's nuclear program, without saying how it could be achieved. This may be an ideal outcome, but that end game is unrealistic and unachievable. We tried that approach during the Bush administration, and Iran has progressed from having hundreds of centrifuges to enrich uranium to tens of thousands now.

The reality is that without a verifiable deal currently within reach, the sanctions regime that brought Iran to the table will collapse, and Tehran will be free to expand its nuclear program without constraints backed by a strict verification regime. This would bring demands for military action, involving the United States in yet another war in the Middle East.

At best, military strikes would only delay Iran's program a few years. And in the words of former Bush administration CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden, a military attack "would guarantee that which we are trying to prevent — an Iran that will spare nothing to build a nuclear weapon and that would build it in secret."

Now that Congress has established its oversight role, lawmakers, including Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin — a Democrat who was a key player in getting the Iran nuclear review bill passed — should support the negotiations and vote to approve an agreement that achieves its purpose: to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon. The only viable alternatives are unacceptable.

Lt. Gen. Robert G. Gard, Jr., a 31-year veteran who served as executive assistant to two secretaries of defense, is currently chairman of the Board of Directors of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation; his email rgard@miis.edu. Angela Canterbury, a resident of Bethesda, is executive director of the center and the affiliated Council for a Livable World; her email is acanterbury@clw.org.

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