The Iran deal and collective security
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A buoyant President Obama announced on April 2 "a historic understanding with Iran" to defang its nuclear program. Chalk one up for the president's oft-criticized Middle East diplomacy.

If it holds, the deal will indeed be a major foreign policy accomplishment for a president who badly needs one. But equally, if not more important, it could breathe new life into collective security.


That's the vision of liberal internationalists like Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. After the colossal failure of balance-of-power politics to keep peace in Europe, they envisioned a new order upheld by great powers acting through legitimizing organizations like the United Nations and formal alliances like NATO.

Their vision often foundered on Cold War divisions. But the idea of collective security endures because few nations want to return to a world in which the strong can bully the weak with impunity and flout widely accepted rules of civilized conduct.

A diplomatic resolution of the Iran nuclear dispute would vindicate Obama's strategy of rallying the international community behind a tough program of economic and political sanctions against Tehran. He recognized that while the Islamic Republic would never bow to what it perceives as browbeating by the Great Satan, it would have to be more responsive to global opinion.

America's partners in the negotiations with Iran include most of the world's leading powers — Russia, China and the European Union, with the blessing of the U.N. That this unlikely coalition has held together despite discord on other issues — most notably the fierce diplomatic row with Russia over Ukraine — is itself a major diplomatic feat. It shows that the authoritarian powers also have a stake in upholding the international system and will work with the democracies on issues of mutual security like terrorism and nuclear proliferation.

The president's critics, especially congressional Republicans and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuBenjamin (Bibi) NetanyahuMORE, should keep this broader context of collective security in mind as they react to the framework agreement. This isn't Obama's deal; it's pretty much the world's deal. If Congress scuttles the agreement, it won't just be a rebuke to Obama — it will be a slap in the face of our partners who have kept faith with a punitive regime of global sanctions and worked with us to quarantine Iran.

The prospect of splintering the coalition apparently doesn't perturb Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), the neophyte statesman who organized the infamous letter to Iran signed by 47 GOP senators. "At this point, the only thing to do is walk away, impose new sanctions, and drive a tougher bargain." How America could do that unilaterally, he didn't say.

Republicans and Netanyahu want to keep ratcheting up sanctions until Tehran agrees not only to dismantle its nuclear enrichment infrastructure, but also to abandon terrorism, curb its regional ambitions and accept Israel's existence. In other words, they won't be satisfied of anything short of Iran's total capitulation. That would be nice, but it's hardly a realistic objective of negotiations.

Netanyahu already has damaged his credibility among U.S. progressives by becoming, in effect, the GOP's designated critic of Obama's nuclear diplomacy with Iran. The question now is whether he will compound the damage — and his own political isolation — by waging a strident campaign against the deal over the next three months.

The framework also faces heavy political weather in Iran. Hatred and mistrust of America continue to run deep among the Islamic Republic's ruling clerisy and their allies in the powerful Revolutionary Guards. Yet news of the accord had some people dancing in the streets of Tehran and sparked hopes of imminent relief from the sanctions that have suffocated Iran's economy.

Under the framework, Tehran agrees to cut its centrifuges by about two-thirds, leaving older machines in place and confining them to low-level enrichment sufficient to fuel power plants, but not nuclear bombs. The agreement also closes Iran's "second path" to nuclear weapons by exporting spent fuel and reconfiguring its reactor at Arak, so that it doesn't produce weapons-grade plutonium.

Iran also agreed to what Obama described as unprecedented verification measures. "If Iran cheats, we will know it," he vowed.

In return for Iran's concessions, the international community apparently would move swiftly to suspend sanctions. The details are still vague, and this provision no doubt will be the hardest sell to skeptics. They will point out, correctly, that the world would be giving up its leverage over Iran in return for assurances that would keep Iran only about a year from a nuclear bomb if it breaks the agreement.

In truth, though, congressional Republicans are holding a weak hand. While a robust debate is in order, the deal is not a treaty and doesn't require congressional approval. And, as is so often the case, Republicans offer no credible alternative to the president's approach. Few Americans are hankering for another war in the Middle East. If U.S. lawmakers pass a new round of sanctions while our partners are dismantling theirs, they would give Iranian hardliners all the pretext they need to torpedo the deal and shift the onus of intransigence to Congress.

In any case, Democrats should give Republican blowhards no aid and comfort over the next three months. For all its imperfections, the framework offers the most plausible way to keep Iran from joining the nuclear club and triggering a Middle East nuclear arms race.

Whatever qualms progressives may have about other aspects of President Obama's Middle East policies — and I've got quite a few — they ought to back the international push to bring Iran into compliance with nonproliferation rules. If it succeeds, it will make America safer, and will be a big win for collective security.

Marshall is the president of the Progressive Policy Institute.