3 views on the Iran nuclear deal

The six-month interim deal the P5+1 world powers reached with Iran in November offers some sanctions relief in exchange for a roll-back of Iran’s nuclear program. In this One Minute Debate, three writers give their take on the historic agreement.

On one side, Matthew Bunn, a professor at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center and former White House adviser on nonproliferation, praises the deal for weakening hard-liners in Iran and strengthening supporters of peace and compromise. On the other hand, former Israeli deputy minister of defense Ephraim Sneh argues that the deal validates Iran's nuclear blackmail and hurts US interests and allies. Commentator Tom Rogan takes a third view: The deal is neither a triumph nor a failure, but just a piece of paper for now.

1. Deal weakens Iran's hard-liners and strengthens US interests

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands during their joint statement in Jerusalem, Dec. 5.

Some, particularly Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have warned that the interim deal increases Iran’s chances of building nuclear weapons. They’re wrong. With this deal in place, it will be much harder for hard-liners in Iran to argue that Iran should tear up its agreements and build a bomb.

Until now, many in Iran, including supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, believed the nuclear issue was just a pretext for a US overthrow of the Islamic regime. To them, the tightening of sanctions and repeated threats of military force are key reasons why Iran needs a nuclear bomb.

This deal undermines their arguments and constrains their options. For one, the deal greatly reduces the sense of an imminent military threat – taking away a critical element of the bomb advocates’ argument. It would also roll back one of the hard-liners’ important victories – the buildup of a stock of 20 percent enriched uranium that could cut the time needed to make a bomb.

If the sides eventually manage to reach a comprehensive agreement, the restraints and verification measures included in that deal would make it very difficult for Iran to race to the bomb without being detected in time for the international community to act.

More important, the advocates of compromise in Tehran have shown they can deliver, producing an agreement with real benefits.

The sanctions relief in the deal is only a modest mitigation of Iran’s economic pain, leaving the banking and oil sanctions in place for now. It poses only a modest risk to the United States and Europe of a broader unraveling of sanctions. But the benefits it offers to Iran are real. And it holds the promise of lifting all sanctions if a larger deal can be reached, which would be a critical boost to Iran’s sagging economy.

If a final deal next year offered broad sanctions relief, powerful players in Iran’s system would be making money on the new trading opportunities, and would not want their interests jeopardized. By contrast, if Iran reneges now, it would be ripping up a deal not just with the US and Europe, but with Russia and China, its only protectors on the United Nations Security Council – and the risk of even tougher sanctions or military action in response would be high.

There is always the possibility that by holding out, the US could have squeezed Iran to accept a deal that would constrain its nuclear program even more. But it would have run the risk of weakening Iran’s pro-compromise faction, which needs to provide something it could plausibly convince Mr. Khamenei to say “yes” to. That’s not likely to include everything the US or Israel would like. But what is in the deal already is enough to change the politics of nuclear weapons in Tehran, making a rush to the bomb less likely.

Matthew Bunn, a professor of practice at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, is a former adviser on nonproliferation in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

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