Opinion: Iran deal could make world safer

November 26, 2013


— Count the Iran nuclear deal as a rare win for President Obama’s secretive, cerebral style of governing. His careful, closeted approach has produced many setbacks over the past five years, but it was at the heart of last weekend’s breakthrough deal with Tehran.

This was secret diplomacy that a Henry Kissinger could appreciate. Obama began by authorizing carefully concealed meetings back in March, through Oman, the most opaque and discreet nation in the Persian Gulf. The president sent as his personal emissaries two low-key, quintessentially gray men, Bill Burns and Jake Sullivan, the deputy secretary of state and vice presidential adviser, respectively.

It was a classic magic trick: While the eye was distracted by the show of the P5+1 talks, the real work was done elsewhere — and presented to the foreign ministers of Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany in Geneva two weeks ago almost as a fait accompli.

Not everyone happy

No wonder Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius were miffed. This deal was done (as any serious piece of diplomacy must be) out of sight. They were asked to endorse it after the fact, and it’s no surprise that they balked — Netanyahu unwisely locking himself into an inflexible rejectionist position and Fabius dickering publicly for more concessions.

Commentaries along the way celebrated Fabius’ show of independence, just as earlier reports had lauded Russian diplomacy on Syria. But this credit was largely illusory. Iran and Syria illustrate the immense leverage America still has when it uses its diplomatic tools wisely and stealthily.

Both side gain

The definition of a good agreement is that it’s one both sides can sell to their publics, and that’s the case here. The agreement seems broadly positive for the U.S. and Israel, at the outer edge of what was possible in terms of freezing the Iranian nuclear program and providing daily inspections to check against any trickery. The world is safer from the Iranian nuclear threat today than it was a week ago.

But it’s a good deal for Iran, too, and that’s going to upset those who wanted an Iranian capitulation. The agreement explicitly seeks a “comprehensive solution (that) would enable Iran to fully enjoy its right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes under the relevant articles of the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty),” including “a mutually defined (uranium) enrichment program.” The language is just fuzzy enough that the U.S. can claim it hasn’t endorsed a “right to enrich” — but the Israeli critique here is correct. The enrichment right has prospectively been conceded; it will never be rescinded, nor will it ever again form the basis for a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Iran.

This big concession on enrichment is offset by the limitations on the Iranian program in the near term that are stronger than many analysts expected. For the next six months, the Iranians will mothball some centrifuges, delay installation of others, disconnect links between the cascades of centrifuges that would be necessary for bomb-level enrichment and provide unprecedented daily inspection of their once-covert facilities at Natanz and Fordow.

Could the Iranians pocket the modest $7 billion they will receive in sanctions relief and then press ahead in six months toward bomb-making capability? That’s certainly possible. But they would make such a breakout with more chance of a U.S. military strike than before.

Vigilance needed

Kissinger set the right test when he told me in 2006 that “Iran has to take a decision whether it wants to be a nation or a cause.” This agreement, negotiated in secret with the erstwhile “Great Satan,” looks like the beginning of a long turn away from revolutionary isolation to an Iranian nation that is engaged with the West in a security framework for this volatile region. Iran may think it can play the candle at both ends — destabilize the region even at it negotiates with the U.S. But that isn’t likely to work. This is a fork in the road; Iran may try to go both directions at once, but if the U.S. and Israel are vigilant, it won’t work.

The deal reached last weekend is fragile. It can be reversed; it can be finagled at the edges; it can mask secret activities. In most agreements, the rubric is “trust but verify.” In this case, make it: “mistrust and verify.”

But it’s a beginning of a process that could make the world less dangerous. Obama, the covert commander in chief, showed once again that he acts most effectively out of sight.

— David Ignatius is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.


Scott Burkhart 4 years, 5 months ago

Really, David? Is this the same "cerebral" individual that told me I could keep my health insurance if I liked it? The same "cerebral" individual that said I could keep my doctor and my hospital if I liked it? I have news for you, bub, Iran played this amateur like a virtuoso violinist. Israel is going to weigh in when the time is right, take out some key installations, and the U.S. will sit blythely on the sideline looking like the kid that deserted his best friend when it came time to stand up to the bully on the playground.

Joshua Cain 4 years, 5 months ago

"Israel is going to weigh in when the time is right, take out some key installations..." - Scott Burkhart

Sounds like Israel is empowered to make it's own decisions, I support that. However, I don't agree with Israel being characterized as the best friend of the US...at least not with respect to Israel's policy toward the Palestinians. Israel's policy toward the Palestinians and the US's tolerance actually endangers our security.

Friends don't let friends violate civil rights, preach democracy, then sit blythely on the sideline looking like the kid that deserted the rhetoric they speak when it came time to stand up to the bully on the playground.

Abdu Omar 4 years, 5 months ago

Really Scott. Iran is the bully? How much land has Iran stolen from others? How many wars has it caused because others oppose its land grab? You mistake who the real bully is and that is evident by your blindness following a country whose goal is to take the whole of the region.

Bob Smith 4 years, 5 months ago

The Iranians are saying they didn't agree to what the White House is reporting as the deal.

Joshua Cain 4 years, 5 months ago

They need to spin it to pacify the opposition.

Bob Smith 4 years, 5 months ago

The moon "could" turn into butter and fall on my little thin pancakes. I'm not going to stand outside with a plate and a hopeful look waiting for that to happen.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.