President Barack Obama’s strategy to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons has worked. Ignoring siren calls over the past five years to try to destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure through air strikes, the president knit together an effective, global sanctions regime that knee-capped Iran’s economy, forcing Iran to the negotiating table. After two years of arduous talks, success is at hand.
The framework agreement reached Thursday by the U.S., Iran and five other nations will prevent Iran from exploiting its nuclear technologies to build atomic weapons for at least 10 years – and almost certainly forever. The safeguards and inspections built into the agreement will provide at least a year’s warning should a future regime in Tehran decide to scrap the agreement and sprint to build a bomb. This would give the U.S. and its allies the time to take preventive military action should they so choose.
The agreement fulfills all of America’s goals. It places tight limits on the number and quality of the centrifuges Iran uses to enrich uranium and removes most of Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium that could have provided the feedstock for weapons-grade materials. Importantly, the agreement controls Iran’s ability to produce more-advanced centrifuges, a step which might have permitted it to “break out” of the agreement more quickly than with the current vintage era “Model T” centrifuges they are permitted to maintain.
The agreement also converts the Arak reactor so that it cannot produce significant quantities of the alternative nuclear weapons fuel, plutonium, and will prevent Iran from building new Arak-like reactors or plutonium separation facilities forever. The agreement also puts in place unprecedented inspections and safeguards, some of which will be in place for 25 years.
At the same time, the nuclear-related sanctions that brought Iran to the table will only be lifted gradually as Iran fulfills its pledges concerning its nuclear infrastructure. Other sanctions, such as those connected to Iran’s support of terrorism, will continue indefinitely.
Some American congressman and talking heads are mistakenly of the mind that ending Iran’s nuclear weapons potential with military force would be easy, similar to the destruction of Saddam Hussein¹s reactor in 1981 – one mission by a few aircraft. Not so. Iran has a substantial nuclear infrastructure spread around the country, thus requiring a large number of aircraft and missile strikes to destroy it.
Moreover, the U.S. armed forces no doubt would want to destroy Iran’s air defenses and aircraft prior to the strike, so as to minimize potential American losses. They also would want to destroy Iran’s Navy and naval facilities on the Persian Gulf, so that Tehran could not threaten U.S. warships or oil tankers plying that narrow waterway.
In short, destroying Iran’s nuclear weapons potential militarily would require a massive air campaign involving hundreds, if not thousands of missions, spread over a period of weeks.
Yet, even if conducted successfully, such a campaign would not end Iran’s options. It could strike U.S. military and diplomatic facilities in the region with commando units or terrorist cells. It could use proxies to go after Americans and American property all over the world. It could use its land armies to attack the remnants of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait and elsewhere in the Middle East. It could continue low-level attacks against U.S. forces indefinitely, forcing us to choose between leaving the Middle East and trying to occupy Iran and replace the government.
Before senators or congressman consider trying to kill the “framework agreement” before it is turned into the detailed document that the negotiators are committed to accomplish by July 1, they might consider the cost of a new war in the Middle East.
And what of the political consequences of a U.S. military strike? A U.S. attack would certainly fracture the coalition that has enforced the sanctions. China and Russia wouldn’t wait a Tehran minute to multiply their trade with, and investment in, Iran. Neither would many European companies.
Within Iran, the American attack would make true that founding myth of the Iranian Republic – that the U.S. wants to destroy the Islamic regime. It would unite the country as never before, cause the government to withdraw from its nonproliferation agreements, and throw out the inspectors, ending the world’s inside information on its nuclear activities. Iran would race at break-neck speed to build nuclear weapons.
It might take them two years or three or even five to get there, but they would have plenty of help from Russia, China and others. How much better it is to gain the minimum of 10 years, and probably many more, through the agreement just concluded.
The Obama administration deserves high praise for this successful negotiation. It has averted a crisis and another war in the Middle East.
It has bought time, lots of time, for the U.S. and other governments to try and resolve the broader issues that divide Iran from many of its neighbors and much of the world. It is a triumph of diplomacy. Congress should take note.
Barry M. Blechman is co-founder of the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan global security think thank. Readers may write the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.