A nuclear deal with Iran is better than no deal

Investors keep close eye on Iran nuclear talks
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Story highlights

  • Will Marshall: The bar for a nuclear deal with Iran is pretty low -- it only has to be better than no deal
  • But President Obama's critics demand a deal that is a fantasy of complete Iranian capitulation

Will Marshall is the president of the Progressive Policy Institute. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Americans who didn't get their fill of fireworks over the July Fourth holiday can expect more pyrotechnics this week if U.S.-led talks in Austria's capital produce a nuclear accord with Iran.

To hear his critics tell it, President Barack Obama is desperate to strike a nuclear bargain with Iran -- even a bad one -- to burnish an otherwise lackluster foreign policy legacy. Leading the alarmist chorus is columnist Charles Krauthammer, who claims that Obama is poised to sign "the worst international agreement in U.S. diplomatic history."
The main burden of proof, however, should fall not on Obama but on skeptics of a nuclear deal with Iran. The President's harshest critics, including conservative hard-liners such as Krauthammer, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and some Sunni Arab leaders, have set the bar for an acceptable agreement impossibly high.
    They demand that Tehran shutter its entire nuclear program, end support for Hezbollah and other extremist groups, and stop meddling in the affairs of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. All this would be nice, of course, but it would require fundamentally transforming the political character and aims of the Islamic republic.
    That's not what some of America's key negotiating partners -- Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany -- signed up for. What holds this improbable but formidable coalition together is a common interest in keeping Iran from joining the nuclear club.
    The deal under discussion in Vienna won't guarantee that outcome, but it will move Tehran back from the nuclear threshold for the next decade or so. In fact, the bar for a deal America and its partners can live with is pretty low: It only has to be better than no deal.
    Keep that essential fact in mind as Obama's critics berate him for allowing those crafty Persians to take him to the cleaners.
    Despite years of diplomatic isolation, punishing economic sanctions and hard bargaining with world powers, Iran has never agreed to dismantle its nuclear program altogether. It's not even clear that Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, will countenance key elements of the deal currently on the table -- the one Obama's critics consider fatally weak.
    Nonetheless, there's no doubt that President Hassan Rouhani is eager to break his country out of political quarantine and to win relief from international sanctions that, along with falling oil prices, have hammered its economy. In exchange, its leaders are promising to limit nuclear enrichment, for the next 10 to 15 years, to levels sufficient for civilian nuclear power, but not making bombs.
    Iran has long insisted it has no interest in developing nuclear weapons, while adamantly asserting its "right" to enrich fuel for civilian nuclear power. Given Tehran's record of nuclear secrecy and deceit, there's no reason for Washington to accept such claims at face value, but a verifiable nuclear deal would enable the world to monitor Tehran's actions, whatever its intentions.
    Yet many in Congress persist in arguing that, by ratcheting up sanctions, America can force Tehran to forgo all uranium enrichment. This supposedly tough-minded posture overstates our leverage and underestimates Iran's prickly resolve to defend its sovereignty in the face of U.S. bullying. It skates blithely over the fraught history of U.S.-Iran relations since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
    Recognizing that Iranian leaders can't readily make concessions to the "Great Satan," Obama has shrewdly assembled a broader coalition that includes all the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. Yet if Congress rejects an agreement or insists on passing new sanctions unilaterally, that coalition would swiftly unravel. This would be a huge strategic gift to Iran's own hard-liners and America-haters.
    So the real choice we may face this week is between a deal that puts real constraints on Iran's nuclear program, or no deal at all.
    No deal means Tehran will install more advanced centrifuges spinning out weapons-grade uranium. It means no international inspections of Iran's nuclear or military sites. And it could mean resumption of Tehran's original plans to produce plutonium at its Arak reactor, giving it a second path to the bomb.
    What's more, an unfettered Iranian nuclear program would likely induce Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, already unnerved by Iranian imperialism in the region, to launch their own nuclear programs. This would conjure up U.S. strategists' worst nightmare -- a nuclear arms race in the world's most unstable and terror-plagued region. It would raise the odds of a military strike on Iran's scattered nuclear facilities, possibly by the United States but more likely by Israel.
    If, on the other hand, a final deal hews to "parameters" negotiators have already agreed to, it would enhance U.S. security and reduce the risk of regional proliferation. These include steep reductions in the number of centrifuges installed, and no production of highly enriched uranium for at least 15 years; a redesign of the Arak reactor so it doesn't produce plutonium; and, regular international inspections of Iran's nuclear facilities and nuclear supply chain.
    In return, the international coalition would agree to lift sanctions as Iran fulfills its commitments. The chief sticking point here is timing: Khamenei insists that sanctions be lifted immediately once a deal is reached. This would be an immediate, $150 billion boost to Iran's stricken economy, and skeptics are right in arguing that, once sanctions are lifted, it won't be easy to rebuild the consensus for snapping them back on if Iran doesn't live up to its promises.
    Obama can't accept this demand. But if Iranian officials can compose their own differences -- chiefly by selling the deal to Khamenei -- America and the world would reap real security gains. Specifically, the deal under discussion would extend the "breakout" period -- the time Iran would need to acquire enough fissile material to make one nuclear bomb -- from the current two to three months to a year.
    That may not sound like much, but it's progress in the right direction. President John F. Kennedy's 1963 Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty didn't end the Cold War, but it bred habits of cooperation that helped to manage and eventually de-escalate the superpower nuclear arms race.
    Keeping Iran's nuclear program on "pause" likewise beats what Obama's conservative critics are peddling -- a fantasy of complete Iranian capitulation to America's righteous demands.