Iran progress

“We have stopped the spread of nuclear weapons in this region,” President Barack Obama said of an agreement reached last week between Iran and seven world powers – the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, China and the European Union – to limit Iran’s controversial nuclear program for at least a decade.

We hope the president is right.

But the agreement, under which harsh economic sanctions imposed on Iran will be lifted in exchange for international inspections and reductions in the number of its centrifuges and its stockpile of nuclear material, will not take effect until Iran is certified to have met its terms. Meanwhile, the president now has 60 days to sell the agreement to a U.S. Congress that includes a significant number of skeptics. That could be a daunting task. After its review of the documents, Congress could elect to vote, by simple majority, a resolution of disapproval. Should that happen, the president certainly would veto such a law, setting the stage for an override vote, which would require two-thirds majorities in both House and Senate.

Such a resolution already appears likely. Maryland Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin, the ranking minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told The Washington Post, “There is no trust when it comes to Iran. In our deliberations, we need to ensure the negotiations resulted in a comprehensive, long-lasting and verifiable outcome that also provides for snapback of sanctions should Iran deviate from its commitments.”

Some of Cardin’s Republican colleagues already may have made up their minds. According to The Post, Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska released a statement saying that “sadly, the administration just lit the fuse for a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.” Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, one of 15 Republicans seeking the presidential nomination, described the agreement as “akin to declaring war on Israel and the Sunni Arabs.” House Speaker John Boehner called it unacceptable and said Republicans “will do everything we can to stop it.”

Given the volatility in the Middle East, it is impossible to predict the future. For years, Iran has been developing nuclear capability and building infrastructure that would support both civilian and military programs. Its leaders insist they do not seek an arsenal of weapons, that their nuclear aspirations are focused only on energy generation and medical research. But in the face of Iran-sponsored terrorism and ongoing calls for “Death to America,” trust in the word of the ayatollahs is in short supply in many nations. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu already has condemned the agreement as “a mistake of historic proportions.” He claims it will allow Iran to rebuild its treasury and continue what he calls its “march of conquest, subjugation and terror” in the Middle East.

Perhaps so, but what are the alternatives? Without an agreement that, at the very least, delays Iran’s nuclear ambitions while removing the crippling economic sanctions now in place, there can be no hope for any sort of rapprochement between Iran and the West. Absent an agreement, Middle East tensions would continue to ratchet upward, almost guaranteeing a nuclear-armed Iran in the near future. In that event, Saudi Arabia would begin its own quest for nuclear weapons, as might other neighbors of Iran. The likely outcome of such a scenario would be a military strike against Iran – and resulting conflagration.

Under the negotiated agreement, the removal of sanctions will begin only after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) verifies Iran’s compliance with its terms. And the parties to the agreement must periodically certify that Iran continues to comply, or sanctions will “snap back” into place. The IAEA inspectors will have unfettered access to Iran’s nuclear sites, uranium mines and mills, centrifuge factories and supply chains, and “managed access” to military sites, apparently the most that could be hoped for.

It is too soon to know whether those terms will be acceptable either to Iranian hardliners or the more skeptical members of the U.S. Congress. The fate of the agreement here in the United States may depend on whether enough Democrats turn against their president to override his veto of the anticipated resolution of disapproval.

Whatever its shortcomings, the agreement with Iran may provide the best and only hope of avoiding an atomic arms race and may cool, at least for a while, the fires of hatred and violence that enflame the most volatile region of the world. Representatives of Iran and the seven world powers who participated in nearly two years of negotiations have provided “an opportunity to move in a new direction,” said Obama last week.

At this point, we must hope that doing so will be worth the risks involved.

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