A President elected twice in large part because Americans trusted his judgment in a dangerous and complicated world has seen that confidence dissipate. First-term national security accomplishments included the end of the Iraq War, unprecedented counterterrorist military-intelligence cooperation culminating in the death of Osama bin Laden, the restoration of badly-damaged partnerships in Europe, and the development of new ones in the Middle East and Asia. Now, the nightly news is dominated by disintegration in Iraq, questions about U.S. spine and leadership in Syria and Ukraine, the rise of new terrorist threats in the Middle East and Africa, and Snowden-infused pendulum shifts in public attitudes about the balance between privacy and security. All the while, public debate about America’s role in a complicated world has largely devolved into false choices between deploying the 82nd Airborne and helpless passivity.
Yet even as the President’s poll numbers sink, Americans continue to agree with his basic approach to navigating a nuanced world: building and leading international partnerships whenever possible and exhausting tough but innovative diplomacy before turning to military force. And, as blaring headlines have focused elsewhere, the Administration has quietly and persistently led a tough-minded, global effort to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
As the July 20 deadline for the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) between Iran and the P5+ 1 — the U.S.-led team of six major world powers, including China and Russia — approaches, the United States has demonstrated the value of firm but reasonable strategic diplomacy. As a result, it is now up to Iran to decide whether it wishes to be a responsible member of the international community by taking steps to turn rhetoric into reality regarding its declared “exclusively peaceful” purpose of its nuclear program, or to sink deeper into isolation and risk destructive conflict.
What has been accomplished to date? The JPOA has frozen critical aspects of Iran’s declared nuclear activities. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has verified monthly that Iran has halted any uranium enrichment above five percent and has consistently been depleting its stockpile of twenty percent enriched uranium from nearly 200 kilograms down to zero. This has slowed the process by which Iran could use this material for a military program. No additional centrifuges have been installed at the Natanz or Fordow fuel enrichment plants, and there have been no further advances to the Arak heavy water reactor.
Throughout this progress, the tough sanctions regime that brought Iran to the negotiating table has stood strong. The financial relief Iran has received from negotiations to date has been limited, with existing oil sanctions still costing Iran an estimated $30 billion over the course of the past six months. Other floundering economic indicators — including a declining currency and an inflation rate among the highest in the world — indicate that Iran is still paying a heavy toll for continued defiance of the international community.
There is clearly much more to be done. Iran’s growing stockpile of low-enriched uranium is of concern, as is the fact that the current safeguards regime and occasional visit by inspectors remains insufficient to determine the full scope and scale of Iran’s nuclear activities. We still do not know, for example, how many centrifuges Iran has manufactured and where they may all exist. Still, while critical questions remain to be answered and the IAEA must better explain how Iran is fulfilling its obligations under the framework agreements, the “good progress” assessment thus far is a welcome step forward. Most important, the JPOA has achieved a pause in important elements of Iran’s overt nuclear program while all parties seek a comprehensive negotiated solution
The United States remains committed to preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Iran has repeatedly stated that it desires a nuclear program for peaceful and not military purposes. Both of these objectives are now within reach, but there are essential steps Iran must take to make its intentions clear.
Iran must accept strictly enforced and verifiable limits to its nuclear program. Enriched uranium above five percent is not necessary for a civilian reactor to operate; for Iran to make this a deal-breaker is to make mockery of their protestations of nuclear power for peaceful use only. The same will be true if the Arak heavy water reactor is not converted to avoid opening a plutonium pathway to a bomb. Iran will also need to satisfactorily address international concerns related to the possible military dimensions of its program, now and in the past. Doing so will be politically difficult but essential if Iran hopes to rebuild trust with the international community.
The risk remains that Iran will accept constraints on its declared program while leaving open a covert pathway to the bomb. A robust monitoring and verification regime must give the IAEA both the mandate and the resources to protect against this outcome. This must include both instituting important physical security measures at Iran’s declared facilities and providing the IAEA with unrestricted access to documents, people, facilities and locations in Iran. The key to blocking a covert program is early discovery. The IAEA must therefore have the authority and the resources to quickly detect any secret nuclear activity.
There is considerable incentive for Iran to make the right choices. Relief from international sanctions will decrease the risk of conflict and spur domestic economic growth, providing Iran a path away from being a “pariah state” toward a new and welcome status as a more responsible member of the international community. Iran’s leaders have too long kept their citizenry from the benefits of a constructive engagement with the world; this is the moment for the Rouhani government to deliver on its promises to do so.
If the U.S.-led P5+1 can achieve a nuclear deal with Iran that satisfies these conditions, even the harshest Obama naysayers and “world-in-a-sound-bite” experts will have to give credit where credit is due. But if July 20 passes without a deal or an extension of the JPOA, the burden of responsibility will fall on the nation that has been given every opportunity to make the right decisions: Iran.
Doug Wilson is the Chairman of the Truman National Security Project & Center for National Policy Board of Advisors and former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs. Joe Costa is a Senior Associate at the Cohen Group and the leader of the Truman National Security Project’s Nuclear Non-Proliferation Expert Group.