Iran deal could yield a safer Mideast region

Secretary of State John Kerry, right, listens as Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.,  speaks about the Iran deal.
Secretary of State John Kerry, right, listens as Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., speaks about the Iran deal. AP

Arms control agreements are by nature controversial. They often fall short of achieving everything that was hoped for. Potential gaps in enforcement can make the threat worse, and evasion is always suspected.

Yet as imperfect as these agreements are, they provide a chance that the world can move in a safer direction. The key is that no arms deal can be effective in a policy vacuum. Any deal must be tied to a larger strategy. As an example, the nuclear arms deals with the Soviet Union were justified not so much deal by deal but as part of a broader policy of containment.

And so it is with the still-controversial Iran nuclear arms agreement.

In itself, the Iran deal would appear to reward Tehran for defying the world, make funds available for its extremist activities and generally make it stronger militarily and economically. Although the agreement provides for a temporary delay in Iran’s nuclear enrichment capability, it allows Tehran to retain its nuclear infrastructure and obtain sanctions relief. The risk is that Iran could become an even bigger threat to the region.

Let’s face it, given the situation in the Middle East, empowering Iran in any way seems like a dangerous gamble. The Islamic State is on the march; the Arab Spring is in shreds; Syria and Yemen are failed states; Iran is supporting Syria’s Bashar Assad, Hezbollah and the Houthis in Yemen; the Saudis are fighting in Yemen; Egypt is fighting in the Sinai Peninsula; Hamas and Hezbollah are rearming to confront Israel; the Palestinians are languishing; Libya is fighting itself; Turkey is fighting the Islamic State and the Kurds.

The response of the United States to these threats is driven more by the crisis of the moment than by any overarching geopolitical or military strategy. The principal driving motivation appears to be to avoid being trapped by another war in the region.

Yet the Iran deal provides the United States with an opportunity to define a policy of strength, not ambivalence, in the Middle East. The administration need only make clear that the fundamental purpose of the nuclear deal is not just to constrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions but to build a strong coalition that will confront both Iran and terrorism in the future.

The following steps are crucial for such a strategy:

Enforce the deal. The United States must work diligently with its allies, the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency to fully implement the constraints in the agreement.

Expand intelligence capability. If Iran violates the agreement, it will do so covertly.

Make it clear that force is an option. Congress should pass a resolution authorizing the current and future presidents to use force to prevent Iran from ever obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Bolster the Middle East coalition. We must redouble our efforts to bolster the security capabilities of our Sunni partners, including Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and others. Such a coalition is vital to maintaining the balance of power in the region.

With the Iran deal, President Obama has taken the right first step in seeking to limit Iran’s ability to obtain a nuclear weapon. As of this week, he has the votes to veto potential congressional disapproval. Rather than sending a message of a divided America, Congress should support the deal. What should sell it to those who still object is this: The agreement opens the door to a larger U.S. strategy to advance peace and stability in the Middle East. That makes the Iran deal not just a gamble but an opportunity for a safer world.

Leon E. Panetta was secretary of defense from 2011 to 2013.