Have you noticed? The nuclear agreement with Iran is no longer in the headlines. Not long ago, Iran’s nuclear program was the central issue in U.S. foreign policy. We talked about it all the time. We even argued over whether we should bomb Iran.
Today, we worry about Russian hacking, the test of a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile, and new tensions with China over Taiwan. We don’t fret about an imminent Iranian nuclear threat, because there isn’t one. Tough and principled American diplomacy removed that danger for the foreseeable future. Chalk it up as one less worry we have to confront in 2017, a year that has barely begun but is already brimming with uncertainty and concerns.
Last week’s passing of Iran’s Hashemi Rafsanjani reminds us of how things might have turned out differently. Rafsanjani was one of the most powerful figures in the history of modern Iran. He was a founder of the Iranian revolution, a former president, and in later years, a key supporter of the more pragmatic and centrist elements in Iranian politics. His death is bad news for Iran’s reform minded president, Hassan Rouhani, but it will be privately celebrated by Tehran’s hardliners.
Now, imagine there was no international agreement curtailing Iran’s nuclear program, no program of unprecedented inspections, no removal of thousands of centrifuges, no disablement of the Arak reactor, no shipping out of 98 percent of Iran’s enriched uranium.
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Absent an agreement, Tehran’s hardliners might have taken Rafsanjani’s passing as an opportunity to push forward with the nuclear program. But they can’t, because Iran’s program is locked down under the most intrusive inspection system ever devised.
Of course, the agreement isn’t perfect; no agreement is. Iran complains that the U.S. has not kept its side of the bargain on sanctions relief. The international community worries about Iran’s supply of arms to regional hot spots, but the core of the agreement which caps and reduces Iran’s nuclear activities has been a success. How do we know that? The International Atomic Energy Agency, with its 24/7 monitoring of nuclear facilities, has confirmed Iran’s compliance for more than three years.
But some people cannot take yes for an answer. They want to torpedo the agreement and start over, by either walking away outright or killing it by introducing new sanctions. If we do that, it will be the U.S. – not Iran – that will get the blame. Our allies have already made clear that, if we break the agreement, they will not join in new sanctions. And without an agreement, Iran’s hardliners will be free to do whatever they want with their nuclear program. Instead, we should begin now to think about how we can make that deal a more permanent arrangement for Iran and the rest of the world.
Rafsanjani’s departure is a reminder of what might have been, were it not for an agreement. It also serves as a warning of what could happen, if we cavalierly throw away our own achievements. At a time when new international dangers seem to emerge with each passing day, we should be thankful that Iran’s nuclear program is one less worry in what promises to be a very busy year.
Thomas R. Pickering is the former undersecretary of state and a long-time ambassador. Jim Walsh is a research associate at MIT’s Security Studies Program. They’ll join a World Affairs Council of Charlotte panel discussion at the Westin Charlotte at noon Wednesday.