If a nuclear deal with Iran is reached tomorrow, or sometime next year, it is likely to face considerable skepticism in a divided and increasingly hawkish U.S. Congress. While any agreement reached between Iran, the United States and the P5+1 countries will not require Senate approval since it will not be a treaty, the deal can be undermined by a lack of Congressional support in the short term, and it will require Congressional endorsement and a lifting of sanctions later on. Opponents of any deal with Iran are adept at using visceral, fear-based arguments to question the very premises of diplomatic engagement with a country the United States has long been estranged from. To get beyond these shortsighted arguments and see a deal clearly, members of Congress need to put these negotiations in historical perspective and understand that it will require some political courage to take a step that will increase America's security in the long run.
The most vocal conservative opponents of any deal maintain that Iran is such a bad actor on international terrorism and human rights, and has such a long history of hostility toward the United States, that we simply should not engage with them. But they only need to look to their conservative predecessors, including heroes such as Ronald Reagan and practical politicians such as Bob Dole, to see the limitations of this attitude. Those staunch defenders of American security recognized that pursuing arms control with the Soviet Union was not an endorsement of Soviet behavior. They continued to confront the Soviet Union in other arenas around the globe and to criticize human rights abuses while working on arms control agreements on separate, parallel tracks. This smarter approach led to arms control agreements that helped defuse the most serious nuclear threats for decades. Reagan was initially vilified as a sellout to the Soviets by the most hardline elements of his party when he pursued the INF treaty in the late 1980s, but his accomplishments in promoting arms control are now seen as enduring part of his legacy. Arms control agreements did not result, of course, in a perfect and peaceful world, yet they left America better off than if caught in an unconstrained, perpetual nuclear arms race, and they created a political space in which the Cold War could safely wind down.
Senators of both parties were deeply skeptical of Soviet intentions, just as today's hawks are of Iranian intentions. Opponents of arms agreements were adamant that the Soviets could not be trusted, would not comply with an agreement, and were using the arms control process to dupe the United States into letting its nuclear guard down. Getting past these doubts required convincing Senators that strong verification regimes would be in place. On this point, Senator Dole was characteristically blunt during the 1987 INF treaty debate, simplifying Reagan's famous dictum, "Trust, but Verify," to his own mantra: "verification, verification, verification -that's the key." With strong verification processes in place, there was a gradual recognition that, despite some ups and downs, the Soviets were committed to compliance. This history enabled a more rational political discourse that led to passage of subsequent treaties up through the New Start treaty in 2010.
The current negotiations with Iran, intended to prevent the Iranians from developing nuclear weapons are, of course, much different than those with a power such as the Soviet Union that already possessed a huge nuclear arsenal. Yet many of the political considerations are similar.
In both cases, decades of hostility and mistrust presented an initial obstacle to even beginning negotiations. In the case of Iran, after 35 years of estrangement, bilateral talks between U.S. and Iranian diplomats have quickly become routine. This has facilitated negotiations, but has not yet built trust and has left negotiators operating in a field of uncertainty and risk. But as we saw in decades of engagement with the Soviets, the political courage to accept these risks, combined with practical efforts on verification, can lead to effective, enforceable agreements.
An intrusive inspections regime has already been in place for almost a year, under the interim Joint Plan of Action which halted Iran's program in return for limited changes in sanctions. Under a comprehensive deal, this kind of robust inspections regime will provide ample time to detect any broad resumption of a nuclear weapons program. No regime is foolproof, and certain violations of any agreement could be missed, but if there is a continuing effort to evade compliance it will be difficult to keep hidden, as years of successful intelligence gathering on Iran's program have demonstrated.
Conservative hardliners in Congress say they would support a deal if it guaranteed that Iran would never be able to build a nuclear weapon. This disingenuous claim ignores the fact that the Iranians already have the necessary knowledge to build a weapon. A good agreement can minimize the risks that Iran can clandestinely move toward building a nuclear weapon, and it can provide incentives for the Iranians to step back from the path toward nuclear arms. More thoughtful members of Congress recognize that without a deal Iran can resume activities that can lead to a nuclear weapon, leaving us with only two options: military action or dealing with a nuclear-armed Iran. Without a deal, the international sanctions regime will likely unravel, diminishing pressure on Iran to allow continued intrusive inspections. The world will be more dangerous and unstable in this scenario than it would be if there is a good, verifiable deal that still entails some uncertainties and risks. A little historical perspective can help spark the political courage needed now in Congress to back a deal which will make America safer and prevent an unnecessary war.