The nuclear framework agreement reached in Lausanne, Switzerland last week between Iran and the "P5 plus 1" (the UN Security Council permanent members United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom and France, plus Germany) is both groundbreaking and controversial.
This interim agreement, which is really a list of parameters for the next and final round of negotiations to be completed by June 30, is the product of intense give-and-take between countries with differing agendas. The primary, unifying goal of the P5 plus 1 was to limit Iran's nuclear capacity and increase the time it would take for Iran to "break out" from its enrichment program and build a nuclear weapon. The longer the breakout time, the more options the US, Israel and the international community would have to take action to prevent it. The demand that Iran eliminate its nuclear research and development program entirely - something it has a right to possess - was never realistic. For Iran, the main goal was to quickly lift the punitive sanctions that have been crippling its economy.
Some critics in Israel, the Arab world and Congress have suggested the framework doesn't go far enough in preventing Iran from getting the bomb. Hardliners in Iran have also denounced it, saying that the Iranian negotiators have given away too much. The US and Iran are already offering different takes of what's in the framework, so despite all the charges and countercharges, we really won't know what the actual deal looks like until June 30.
Because the United States is part of a coalition of countries bargaining with Iran, it is unrealistic to expect that America will be able to unilaterally dictate the terms of any final agreement. Thanks in large measure to the Obama administration's diplomatic efforts, in the past few years the international sanctions regime against Iran has become widespread and crippling. In addition to longstanding and new American sanctions, the Security Council, members of the European Union, Japan, South Korea, Canada, Australia, Switzerland and others have come together to implement a sophisticated mix of unilateral and multilateral sanctions that target not just Iran's military and nuclear research programs, but also its energy, transportation, and financial sectors. This global sanctions regime is what forced Iran to the bargaining table.
These multilateral restrictions on trade, oil purchases and financial dealings hurt the Iranian economy but also have a detrimental impact on the countries imposing the sanctions, including Russia and China. Were the Obama administration to go beyond what its partners are willing to accept and ratchet up the pressure to garner more concessions from Iran--as many Republicans in Congress and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu advocate-Russia, China and others would likely pull out and the international sanctions regime would collapse. Iran would then be free to acquire banned materials and race to develop the bomb without economic penalties.
Iran is a proud nation with a 2,500 year-old heritage, a sophisticated culture and a highly educated populace. It has long been and always will be a regional power. The Islamic Republic of Iran, however, with its radical ideology and regional ambitions that threaten Israel and many Sunni Arab states, is just 35 years old. The vast majority of Iranians alive today were born after the Revolution. They don't remember the repression of the Shah; all they know is the repression of the mullahs and most of them don't like it. If we can keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon with 10 or 15 years' worth of rigorous, agreed-to inspections and--as a reward for modifying its behavior--open up that country to the world, the end result might be "regime change" without ever firing a shot.
In the meantime, as President Obama has noted, the US will employ its overwhelming military capacity to deter Iran from attacking any of our allies in the region. No matter what the final deal looks like come June 30, Iran's compliance must be approached with skepticism. As Ronald Reagan said of the Soviets, "Trust, but verify." This should be our mantra when it comes to Iran.