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Joe Conason: Iran Nuclear Deal — Do the Critics Want War?

Before too much credibility is lavished upon Republican critics of the Iran nuclear agreement draft, including all of the assorted would-be presidential candidates, someone ought to urge them to explain what they would do instead. And when those critics start blathering, someone should interrupt to ask whether they are actually talking about a simple three-letter word: war.

From the beginning, the familiar faces that favor war over negotiation have prepared their talking points against any eventual deal. But they were surely surprised by the comprehensive, positive and detailed character of the framework announced in Lausanne, Switzerland, by Secretary of State John Kerry. The tentative nuclear agreement includes significant concessions by Iran that will achieve the most important metric demanded by the United States and its diplomatic partners — namely, to extend the "breakout" period required for Tehran to develop a single nuclear weapon.

The full deal is complex and yet to be completed, but the proposed framework addresses the most pressing concerns about a sustainable and verifiable non-proliferation regime.

According to President Barack Obama, Kerry and the P5+1 alliance in Lausanne — where the talks had continued until the last possible moments — the government of Iran has agreed to cut its uranium-enriching centrifuges from 19,000 to 6,000, greatly reducing its capacity to rapidly produce weapons-grade material.

The excess centrifuges and related machinery will be held in storage monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency to be used only for replacement parts — and Iran will construct no new uranium-enrichment facilities for the duration of the agreement.

Taken together, these changes are expected to extend the "breakout" period from a few months to at least one year.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif also agreed that his country will not enrich uranium over 3.67 percent for the next 15 years and will slash its present inventory of more than 20 tons of low-enriched uranium to well under a ton for the same duration. Moreover, Zarif and his team conceded that Iran will ship all of the spent fuel from its heavy-water reactor at Arak, which might have been reprocessed into bomb-ready plutonium, to other countries for reprocessing — a sticking point earlier in the talks. The Arak facility itself will undergo a reconstruction process — including the destruction of the reactor's original core — rendering production of plutonium impossible.

The deal provides for continuous IAEA monitoring of all Iranian nuclear reactors and programs — described by Obama as the most intensive ever undertaken — and for sanctions relief that will only begin when Iran has met all of its initial commitments to restructure and dismantle its weapons-related equipment and programs.

As Obama said in welcoming the agreement, these negotiations — and their ultimate success — are an opportunity of historic significance to reduce the risks of war and proliferation.

But the Iran talks also represent a chance to promote peaceful change in that unfortunate country, whose people desperately hope that the government of President Hassan Rouhani can move toward normal relationships with Western countries, especially the United States. The best guarantees of peace and security — for the world, the U.S., the Middle East and, yes, Israel — will be realized by strengthening forces in Tehran that seek to transcend Iran's status as a diplomatic and economic pariah.

Partisan efforts to scuttle the nascent bargain have long been under way and will now intensify. The perpetrators are almost exclusively the same group of "experts" — from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to former U.N. ambassador John Bolton to ubiquitous neoconservative pundit William Kristol — who were wrong about the supposed nuclear plans of Saddam Hussein, and who then pushed us into a pointless war that cost many thousands of lives and trillions of dollars.

So what would the critics propose? Extending the current sanctions regime is not a workable option and would not, by their estimates, permanently deter Iran from developing nuclear weapons — even if international unity behind the sanctions could be maintained indefinitely, which is even more unlikely.

Evidently, the critics intend to embroil the United States and Israel in a series of military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities, another strategy that will not achieve any enduring impact. Is their real plan a full-scale land invasion leading to "regime change"? Unlike Iraq, the target of the last misadventure promoted by these same savants, Iran has a large and well-equipped military. Last time, the neoconservative advocates of war assured us that invading Iraq would cost us practically nothing — a prediction that was tragically wrong. What will their bad advice cost us this time?

The American people support Obama's use of internationally backed sanctions to achieve a negotiated agreement rather than armed conflict — and now his approach is proving more effective than the belligerent attitude promoted by his critics over the past decade. Let us hope that he and Kerry, both of whom deserve enormous credit for their moral courage and pertinacity, will be able to bring forth a signed agreement by the next deadline in late June.

Joe Conason is editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. Click here to contact him, follow him on Twitter: @JoeConason, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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