Two myths that could sink the nuclear deal with Iran

The deal brokered by the U.S., Iran, and UN powers is historic for breaking three decades of non-relations and escalations between Washington and Tehran. But now the most difficult work begins, with risks that a final deal will fall prey to the domestic political battles inside Iran and the U.S. 

In Washington, the interim agreement is already being dragged into the absurd political food fight between Democrats and Republicans, and Obama and Congress. Those who would prefer a war to a diplomatic solution are more than happy to exploit these divisions and have put forward two key myths aimed at killing a final deal.

Zero Enrichment

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No country has ever obtained nuclear weapons as a member of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), including the six non-nuclear weapon states that currently enrich uranium on their own soil: Germany, Brazil, Argentina, Japan, the Netherlands and Iran. 

Despite disagreements between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran's enrichment facilities have remained under almost weekly inspection under the NPT.  With the interim agreement, inspectors will have even broader access to Iran's nuclear facilities, with daily and surprise inspections. Having now frozen Iran’s capabilities in place as part of the deal, these inspections provide full assurance that the country cannot develop a nuclear weapon without being caught. 

Yet the myth widely perpetuated by hardliners, and often misunderstood on Capitol Hill, is that the U.S. must demand “zero enrichment.” Such an ultimatum is a poison pill for negotiations and is not necessary to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. The zero-enrichment ultimatum is largely responsible for the failure under the Bush Administration to constrain Iran's nuclear program and resulted in the U.S. missing several major opportunities to curb Iran's nuclear efforts.

As then-Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) said in 2009, “The Bush administration [argument of] no enrichment was ridiculous.” According to Kerry, the zero enrichment demand was a “non-starter” that “hardened the lines” between Iran and the U.S. “It was bombastic diplomacy. It was wasted energy,” Kerry said.

Given the tremendous economic and political cost Iran has incurred for its so-called “right to enrich,” Iran will not back down by accepting an ultimatum to dismantle its entire enrichment. Perhaps more importantly, Iran would never accept the prospect of being reduced to a second-class member of the NPT while other non-nuclear weapon states enrich. A zero-enrichment ultimatum would derail an agreement to put real constraints on Iran’s nuclear program, leaving the program unchecked. 

A comprehensive deal should build on the positive steps of the interim agreement by including permanent constraints on Iran’s capabilities and the ratification of the IAEA's additional protocol, which would lock in the ability of inspectors to spot-check virtually any facility in the country with little warning.  Under the tight watch of nuclear inspectors, Iran would be unable to ever break out and pursue a nuclear weapon without getting caught instantaneously.

Sanctions

Some argue that instead of converting existing sanctions into a deal, the U.S. should amplify sanctions to get an even better deal. They say any pause or reversal of economic pressure would cause the sanctions regime against Iran to collapse.

To the contrary, the real threat to the sanctions regime does not come from trading sanctions for Iranian concessions—as they were intended—but from refusing to negotiate in good faith.  Remember, it was Obama’s “outstretched hand,” and Iran’s perceived rejection, that rallied the international community around tougher sanctions in 2010.  If Congress responds to a reasonable deal agreed to by Iran with more sanctions, the U.S. will be seen as the party with the “clenched fist,” and the rationale that convinced states like China, India, and South Korea to impose sanctions that were against their own economic interests would evaporate. The sanctions will unravel before Iran makes a single further nuclear concession.

Congress now faces a historic test of courage. Will lawmakers commit due diligence, support this deal, and secure a future in which the U.S. and Iran are not on the brink of war and Iran is not on the cusp of a nuclear weapon? Or will they snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by putting forward the same sort of misconceptions, half-truths, and political posturing that led to previous, unneeded wars of choice? The ball is in Congress' court.

Abdi is the policy director of the National Iranian American Council. Costello is a policy fellow with the National Iranian American Council.