Earlier this week, Iran suspended its activities on its nuclear program, in accordance with an agreement reached with six great powers – the US, Russia, China, Britain, Germany, and France. And you could have heard a pin drop in the American public discourse in the face of this remarkable turn of events. And that is a bizarre thing. For the constellation that came together these past twelve months is unlikely to happen ever again. All the major world powers – including Russia and China and the US – are in agreement. The Iranian regime and – most significantly – the Iranian people want a deal that would both restrain Iran’s nuclear capacities to civilian purposes and slowly pry open its economy after brutal sanctions have close to extinguished it. A huge amount still needs to be figured out and it will be a formidable task of negotiation to move forward. It may all come to nothing. But surely, surely, it’s worth giving diplomacy a chance.
Why? For my part, it’s for the Iranian people, and global security. Neoconservatives portray their position against any agreement as one of solidarity with the Iranian people against their regime. And I’m sure that’s a genuine as well as admirable motive. But aren’t they engaging in a classic bit of ideological projection? In so far as we can tell anything about the views of the actual Iranian people – especially its younger and more educated generation – it is that they overwhelmingly want both a peaceful civilian nuclear program (in part as a matter of national pride) and re-engagement with the wider world, including the West. So the neocons are in fact either acting against the interests of the Iranian people, or accusing them of false consciousness. Neither seems to me the right response to this moment.
It’s also an ineluctable fact that Iran has acquired the intellectual and material infrastructure to become a nuclear military power if it wants to at any point in the foreseeable future. Let me repeat that: Iran’s potential as a nuclear military power is a fact. The time to prevent that would have been the Bush-Cheney years; but we tragically chose to pursue the control of imaginary weapons of mass destruction in Iraq instead. So the proximate actual choice we have with a regime with a disgusting record of internal repression and a nuclear potential is a) negotiating an internationally-monitored civilian nuclear program with strong inspections, b) a pre-emptive war with unknowable consequences to delay (but not end) the regime’s potential for a viable nuclear weapons program, or c) resume the Cold War stand-off, increase sanctions some more, destroy their economy and contain their military power.
For a long time, I thought c) was probably the least worst, realistic option. That view was entrenched during the Green Revolution. To see such hope and positive energy crushed by merciless regime thugs was a sober reminder of the forces we are dealing with. But here’s the thing: the Iranian people did not despair. Hemmed in by rigged, approved political candidates, they nonetheless voted in 2009 for a clear shift back toward the West and then in 2012 for the most pro-Western candidates there were. The Iranian people told us that engagement – and not continued polarization – was the answer they wanted. This movement – combined with the effect of, yes, “crippling” sanctions – brought the Iranian leadership to the backrooms of diplomacy. It was a perfect constructive storm.
This is where we are. It is not an ideal situation – but after the catastrophe of the Bush-Cheney years in foreign policy, we have no ideal situations. But it is also not the worst situation.
It’s an extraordinary victory, in many ways, for pro-Western forces in the Middle East. A hugely important country – America’s natural ally in the region – is a hotbed of democratic activism and pro-American sentiment among many of its people. That country has declared that it will never use nuclear weapons and, unlike nuclear-armed Israel, is a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Its newly elected government, backed by the theocratic Supreme Leader, openly says it wants to entrench a nuclear-weapon-free Iran in an international agreement. In return, it’s asking for relaxation of sanctions that would allow its economy to grow. And that growth would redound to the credit of the reformers, and perhaps begin a slow thawing of the regime itself.
These moments do not come often in human history. I remain of the view that the greatest single threat to our civilization is the combination of religious extremism with weapons of mass destruction. If we can reliably ensure that the biggest Shiite power does not seek to build or use nuclear weapons and retain that commitment over time, we have made a huge stride toward reducing the greatest danger we face, in the wake of 9/11. The Obama administration has already – by design or accident – managed to secure and begun to dismantle another major global WMD danger in Syria. To get an inspections regime in place to do the same for Iran would be a historic gain for global security in the most volatile region on the planet.
A deal would help Iran’s moderates; it would be a real achievement in a new global partnership between the major world powers; it is our only hope to keep Iran’s actual nuclear capacities restrained to civilian use without a full-scale war; its economic benefits would accrue to the regime – but also, critically, to the moderate path the Iranian people have chosen – in the face of bullets and torture and terror – for the last several years.
Let’s re-appraise the value of this moment, and not let it pass into the ether, because of fear or paranoia or habit, or fail to grasp the full extent of the advance that is now possible. And those Senators actively backing the American sabotage of the process should take a deep breath, put AIPAC on hold, and let diplomacy take its course. This is history. It deserves more than the politics of a domestic lobby. It deserves statesmanship. And prudence. And patience. And time.