Iran: Focus On The Comprehensive Agreement


One easily can get lost in the debate swirling around the interim — and I emphasize the word “interim” — agreement, signed last weekend in Geneva between Iran and the P5+1 nations. If you are looking for a definitive answer about whether it is a good agreement, as administration officials assert, or a very bad one, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believes, you have come to the wrong place. I am far more focused on the comprehensive agreement to come, hopefully, in six months.

Regarding the interim agreement, both sides present reasonable, even compelling arguments. The administration explains that the sanctions relief offered to the Iranian regime is modest in scope, does not affect the basic sanctions infrastructure so meticulously crafted over many years, and is easily reversible. And, in return, Iran largely is hitting the pause button on its nuclear program, and, most importantly, for the first time ever, agreeing to vigorous, intrusive and daily inspections by international monitors.

Israel’s leaders are worried, and I am too, that these temporary relief measures, not so modest in their judgment, will be interpreted as a green light for the world to resume trade with Iran. And, once the oil and business markets react, it will be virtually impossible to reverse course. Even if the U.S. wishes to do so, will Russia, China and the European states, much more invested in Iran’s economy than we are, be amenable?

Moreover, while the administration adamantly rejects the notion that the deal recognizes an Iranian “right” to enrich uranium, it does refer to the possibility of a “mutually defined uranium enrichment program with practical limits and transparency measures. …” in the context of a comprehensive agreement. For Israel — with its higher vulnerability to an Iranian attack and lower military capability compared to the U.S. — it would be unacceptable to allow a significant number of sophisticated centrifuges to spin in Iran after a final deal is reached and all sanctions lifted.

Think tanks, government offices, Jewish organizations and others have been working overtime cranking out in-depth analyses of the Geneva agreement, pro and con. Through this mountain of material one fact stands out. With all its flaws and ambiguities, the interim deal is done, and we would be well served not to look backwards, but to look ahead. Here it behooves us to focus on the ultimate objective regarding Iran, an objective shared by President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, not tactical disagreements now roiling the relationship between Washington and Jerusalem. At bottom, both countries believe that Iran should be prevented from possessing the ingredients to easily produce a nuclear weapon. Long-term, the basic nuclear infrastructure should be dismantled, not merely monitored. 

Thus, our attention must shift to identifying with clarity and precision the elements of a comprehensive agreement that meets this objective and an acceptable timeframe for its achievement. It is absolutely critical that the United States and Israel coordinate positions, and the arrival of an Israeli team in Washington soon to discuss the next steps is reassuring. 

It is also worth keeping in mind what longtime Mideast negotiator Aaron David Miller calls the tyranny of process, which means that there may be a tendency to protect the negotiations beyond six months even if Iran is not fully living up to its side of the interim deal or showing necessary flexibility on a comprehensive agreement. The ultimate objective here must be protected, not the process.

What is the role of the Israel advocacy community in the months ahead? It is to explain to decision-makers and opinion-molders what is at stake here, not only for Israel and other allies in the region, but for U.S. national security interests. We must explain that, behind the smiles and handshakes with the smooth-talking Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif in Geneva, there remains a regime that represents the number one state sponsor of terror in the world, that incites to genocide against the Jewish people, abuses its own citizens’ rights and constantly seeks to undermine U.S. efforts to advance peace and stability in the Middle East.

No question that there is war weariness in our country, with growing isolationist voices on both the right and the left urging us to focus exclusively on our many domestic challenges. The relinquishing of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad of Syria, without resort to force, could easily be seen as a triumph for the Obama administration. Yet, apparently, the decision not to strike in the face of congressional opposition is widely regarded in the region as a sign of weakness. The president and secretary of state must overcome these obstacles and approach the difficult negotiating challenge ahead with Iran from a position of strength.

An immediate issue in front of us is the desire by Congress to enact new enhanced sanctions. A bill passed the House last summer, and the Senate now is poised to act. The administration has requested a delay, warning that such legislation could undermine the delicate diplomatic dance begun in Geneva. Many members of Congress, on a bipartisan basis, insist that implementation of the new sanctions can be deferred for six months, and cancelled if the negotiations toward a comprehensive agreement are successful. Most of the mainstream Jewish organizations support this legislation.

However the issue plays out, two things ought to be made clear. Notwithstanding our skepticism about the sincerity of Iran’s leadership, we all want a diplomatic solution that, once and for all, will remove the menace of a potentially nuclear-armed Iran. And if such a solution cannot be found, Iran should face even harsher economic pressures than before. Needless to say, also, that no option for preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power, including a military option, should be taken off the table.

Martin Raffel is senior vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA).