Iran diplomacy: History is on Obama’s side

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An American president, approaching the end of his second term, stands up to foreign policy hawks to defend his legacy-defining efforts toward nuclear disarmament. Exacerbated by relentless criticism from the right, he makes his case bluntly: “Some of the people who are objecting the most ... whether they realize it or not, those people basically down in their deepest thoughts have accepted that war is inevitable.”

The year was 1987. The president was Ronald Reagan.

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While I was often at odds with President Reagan during his time in office, I’m grateful for his dedicated pursuit of nuclear arms reductions with the Soviet Union. This tenacious work made the world safer and helped to create the political space for reformers to eventually dismantle old dictatorial structures. 

Today, with his historic Iran agreement, President Obama is on track to do the same. 

Of all the arguments on the Iran deal, there's one key point that's essential to understand: The deal accomplishes the core objective that the United States set out to accomplish in entering the negotiations in the first place. It eliminates two-thirds of Iran’s centrifuges, removes 98 percent of its enriched uranium, and establishes the strictest inspection regime in history. This vastly reduces the possibility of a successful secret nuclear program. Should Iran violate the terms of the agreement, we will have sufficient time to discover the violation, and all our current options to stop it — including the re-imposition of multilateral sanctions — remain on the table.  

Just as in Reagan’s day, the critics of this nuclear negotiation are all but assuming the inevitability of military conflict. While some claim that Congress rejecting the hard-won agreement will result in a “better deal,” the far likelier outcome is that our international coalition would splinter and the sanctions regime would collapse as our foreign partners come to believe that the United States is incapable of accepting “yes” for an answer.  Rather than bolstering our bargaining position, a Congressional rejection of the deal would empower Iran’s hardliners, enable the resumption of unmonitored nuclear fuel enrichment and increase the likelihood of conflict.  

Nothing would endanger American and Israeli security and economic interests more than a war that would unleash terrorism around the world and result in the blockage of the crucial Strait of Hormuz. Such a war might delay an Iranian nuclear program by two years at most while irrevocably discrediting U.S. diplomacy in the eyes of allies. The only winner in such a destructive conflict would be the enemy that the United States and Iran share: ISIS.

Approving the deal would not only inhibit Iranian nuclear ambitions and promote stability in the Middle East. It would bolster U.S. diplomatic authority in the world and, potentially, set forth a wave of reformist energies within Iran. Obama fought successfully for the strong multilateral sanctions that have crippled Iran's economy. By conditionally lifting some sanctions in exchange for a verifiable freezing of nuclear activities, this deal demonstrates to the Iranian people that constructive engagement with the United States — not reversion to the ideology of the ayatollahs — is the path to the prosperity they desire.

Just over half a century ago, another American president, John F. Kennedy, in another era of difficult engagement with the Soviets, provided a piece of enduring wisdom for American diplomats and for our nation as a whole: “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.” Obama’s diplomacy with Iran is grounded in strength and realism. But it’s also animated by something all too rare in foreign relations: Hope.

Conyers represents Michigan’s 13th Congressional District and has served in the House since 1965. He sits on the Judiciary Committee.