On Dec. 8, 1987, President Ronald Reagan stood next to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev at the White House and delivered one of the most memorable phrases of his presidency. Quoting an old Russian proverb, he said that the aim of the arms reduction treaty being signed that day was to: “trust, but verify.”
As the world reacts to the interim nuclear agreement negotiated last month between Iran and the “P5+1” powers, Reagan’s adage is instructive for its context. For decades, the United States and the Soviet Union had been locked in a bitter Cold War struggle and a nuclear arms race in which each had invested billions in the other’s destruction. Just six months earlier, Reagan had stood in West Berlin and demanded that Gorbachev “tear down this wall.” Yet here he was, signing a treaty with his Cold War nemesis and calling on the American people to trust a country they had distrusted so deeply for a generation.
Iran is not the Soviet Union, and whether its new president, Hassan Rouhani, will become his country’s Mikhail Gorbachev is an open question. An interim deal alone won’t negate the Iranian government’s long track record of antagonizing the international community, destabilizing the region and repressing its own people.
But the P5+1 agreement does represent an opportunity – for negotiations toward a broader deal that decisively prevents Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, and, if that is achieved, for a new era of relations between Iran and the West. It is exactly the kind of opportunity envisioned in the bipartisan letter I coauthored recently, signed by nearly a third of the House of Representatives, urging President Obama to reinvigorate U.S. diplomatic efforts following President Rouhani’s surprise election.
In fact, the interim agreement reverses Reagan’s adage; it could best be described as “verify now, trust later.” It requires Iran to stop all enrichment of nuclear material above a certain level, neutralize much of its existing enriched uranium stockpile, suspend the development of new enrichment capacity, halt substantive work on its “heavy water” plutonium reactor and provide unprecedented access to its nuclear program by international inspectors, including daily inspections of key facilities.
In exchange, the deal provides temporary relief from a limited range of international sanctions that can easily be reversed if Iran fails to uphold its end of the bargain. The most painful sanctions – on Iran’s oil and financial services sectors – will remain largely intact, giving the United States and its allies a strong negotiating hand as we seek to reach a broader deal in the coming months.
Critics of the interim agreement argue that Iran must be stripped of any capacity for nuclear enrichment altogether. In a perfect world, I would agree.
But in the real world, the choice facing the international community is not between the current deal and a deal with zero enrichment. It is between the current deal and one of two disastrous alternatives: Either Iran is left to develop its nuclear program with far less international supervision, or the United States and its allies get drawn into yet another war in the Middle East.
Either of these outcomes would make the world a far more dangerous place than would the interim agreement.
Moving forward, Congress must give our negotiators the time and space they need to succeed. The unprecedented sanctions already in place have brought the Iranian economy to its knees and the Iranian government to the negotiating table.
But a new round of sanctions at this point could have the opposite effect, fracturing the international coalition that has been so critical to the sanctions’ success and thus unraveling the existing sanctions regime. This would actually weaken our negotiating leverage, and would give Iran the pretext to blame America if negotiations fail. Why would we give up our hand before we’ve had a chance to play it?
There is no guarantee that the interim deal will lead to a final one. Iran may cheat, delay or walk away from the negotiating table. If that happens, we will be in a far stronger position to pursue an alternative course of action, with the international community behind us. But if the negotiations succeed, it will be a diplomatic triumph on the scale of the Reagan-Gorbachev treaties, averting a deadly threat to global security without another costly war in the Middle East.
U.S. Rep. David E. Price represents North Carolina’s 4th Congressional District.