Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Iran Agreement

An Iranian diplomat once told me, “We have more reasons to be friends than enemies.” In a necessary diplomatic dance, I responded, “It is sad that we have taken divergent paths.”

Now a complex and controversial agreement over Iran’s nuclear development is dominating the news. As a matter of first principle, Iran cannot be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon. An Iranian bomb would threaten America, our ally Israel, and other friendly countries in the Middle East. The key question to ask is whether this potential agreement will stop, verify, and reverse Iran’s current course. All three points are debatable. Any agreement must move Iran away from the nuclear precipice.

For years Iran has developed the fuel necessary for a nuclear weapon, and the United States must recognize that Iran has a level of mastery over the process. Congress will now undertake the difficult task of unpacking the components of the agreement. The agreement’s architecture offers Iran relief from economic sanctions as long as it significantly scales back its nuclear program. There are two risks involved: the risk of an agreement, and the risk of no agreement. Iran could use it as a ruse to develop a nuclear weapon, but I think this is unlikely. However, the agreement confers upon Iran a status as a threshold nuclear state, an unprecedented dynamic in international affairs for a country with such problematic entanglements.

Rather than look at the technical details here (a summary of the agreement can be found on my website) let’s examine the various options before us. First, we could do nothing. The United States and the international community could continue the deteriorating trajectory without an agreement. Second, the international coalition could demand a better deal by continuing or tightening sanctions. However, other countries involved in the agreement, including the Russians and the Chinese, are not likely to be reliable partners at the negotiating table, and they have already signed this agreement, making further negotiation virtually impossible. Third, we could take the current agreement—but this decision has many implementation and compliance risks, including lifting an international arms embargo on Iran. The fourth option is military strikes, which have multiple negative consequences. All options have significant downsides.

Some people tend to regard Iran monolithically. But Iranians are not all the same. The Iranian regime is led by hardliners and theocrats who envision an Islamic Revolution spreading across the Middle East. On the other hand, a majority of the country is under age 30 and more oriented toward the West: interested in openness, dialogue, and opportunity. Like many people, Iranians face difficult economic circumstances that they hope to change. The tyranny of decades past still controls the country, but new dynamics exist that could chart a better way forward. In a perfect scenario, the agreement could ultimately open a gateway for Iran to have a better relationship with the United States and the world. In any event, the country’s cultural and political contradictions cloud the view of the future.

After a 60 day period of intense review, Congress will confront an up or down vote of approval or disapproval. Many Members of Congress are already expressing deep skepticism about the agreement. Reservations stem from a combination of varied factors. Widespread distrust of Iran is more than justified, and the verification mechanisms could become a cat and mouse game. Added to this, President Obama’s heavy handedness on issues like healthcare and immigration has created a divisiveness that has alienated many Members of Congress and undermines the trust needed for such a delicate diplomatic initiative. Congress should be circumspect about the limits of what we can achieve with—or without—an agreement.

One thing is clear: the dilemma is gravely serious and does not lend itself to sound-bite foreign policy. Prudential judgment about how to keep ourselves and the rest of the world safe requires statesmanship and a solid diplomatic footing, and any resolution must be firewalled from unnecessary political acrimony. We have the responsibility to scrutinize the details of the agreement, debate the merits, and examine added options. The consequences of an agreement will frame the geopolitics of the 21st century.

About the Author:

JEFF FORTENBERRY has served as the U.S. Representative for Nebraska's 1st congressional district since 2005. He is the Chairperson for the Subcommittee on Department Operations, Oversight, Nutrition and Forestry. Vice Chair of the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights and has a seat on the Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia.

He is a member of the following Caucus groups: Civil War Battlefield Caucus - Congressional Biofuels Caucus - Congressional Farmer Cooperative Caucus - House Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Caucus - International Conservation Caucus - Sportsmen's Caucus.

Congressman Fortenberry has become the most knowledgeable representative on Capitol Hill for nuclear security issues.

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