Don't chase Utopian dream on Iran deal

Zakaria: It's up to Iran to make the tough choices
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    Zakaria: It's up to Iran to make the tough choices


Zakaria: It's up to Iran to make the tough choices 05:08

Story highlights

  • Talks are continuing over Iran's nuclear program
  • Laicie Heeley: Deal would not diminish importance of tackling Iran's behavior in other areas

Laicie Heeley is a Fellow for the Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense program at the nonpartisan Stimson Center. The views expressed are her own.

(CNN)Negotiators in Vienna could be just days away from an agreement that might change the way the world interacts with Iran. Under the best-case scenarios, an initial nuclear agreement could open the way to a broader détente between Iran and the West after decades of mistrust.

But it is important to remember that the purpose of this nuclear agreement is not to simply act as a confidence-building measure. Instead, it is to ensure that a country that has engaged in contemptible human rights abuses and state sponsorship of terrorism, and which has not yet gained the trust of the United States, does not have the chance to obtain a nuclear weapon.
The reality is that the United States must be prepared for Iranian behavior beyond the nuclear issue to remain the same in a post-deal environment. Indeed, in an effort to address this sensitive security issue, one that directly affects the security of U.S. citizens and our closest U.S. allies, some issues relating to Iran's nefarious behavior have been taken off the table.
    This is positive, since it has allowed two countries that might otherwise disagree to negotiate on the nuclear issue. It is, therefore, a first step in a process many hope will continue. But even if it does not, the U.S. will be safer for having taken this first step.
    A final deal is expected to block Iran's pathways to a nuclear weapon and subject the country to the most intrusive inspections regime ever negotiated. Under such a deal, Iran would be required to cut its number of operating centrifuges in half, would only be able to produce low-enriched uranium and its existing stockpile would be largely eliminated.
    Iran's plutonium reactor, meanwhile, would be redesigned for civilian use only, and rigorous inspections would be implemented that would guard against cheating. Ultimately, under these conditions, the time needed for Iran to develop enough material for one bomb would be four times longer than it is now.
    Parts of this agreement would phase out after 10 to 15 years, but the most crucial would remain indefinitely, including Iran's ratification of the Additional Protocol, which allows inspectors greater access to its nuclear facilities. It is important that this includes Iran's military facilities. Most significantly, though, Iran will never be allowed to build a bomb. As a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Iran's nuclear progress would continue to be monitored for suspicious activity, and any attempt to build a weapon would result in swift, punitive action on the part of the U.S. and its international partners.
    World powers are aiming to make sure Iran would need at least a year to build a bomb, should it "break out" of the deal.
    On top of these forceful and intrusive measures, separate sanctions that have been levied against Iran for state sponsorship of terrorism and human rights abuses would remain in place, and even if it signs off on this deal, the U.S. Congress would be all but guaranteed to remain steadfast in its commitment to these sanctions for the foreseeable future.
    Remember: the whole point of sanctions is to gain concessions. Nuclear sanctions are lifted in exchange for nuclear concessions, human rights for human rights, and so on. Iran should not be rewarded for steps it has not taken.
    There is clearly much to gain, and the U.S. should now work, alongside its international partners, to bring this deal to a close. After all, sanctions are not without diminishing returns.
    For the Iranians, failure to bring home a nuclear deal would mark a key failure of Hassan Rouhani's presidency, leaving the country isolated and facing worsening economic prospects. For the U.S. and world powers negotiating the deal, absent a snub on the part of Iran, there is no telling how long a tenuous international sanctions regime may hold.
    It is important to remember that Iran built its current program under sanctions. Additional sanctions will therefore not be enough to stop the country from taking its last few, much smaller, steps toward the bomb.
    There can be no doubt that this deal represents a compromise on both sides. But without a deal, Iran's nuclear program remains unconstrained. Many years of Iranian nuclear advancement have already proven the danger that lies in the false hope of a better deal.
    It should go without saying that any deal now does not diminish the importance of addressing Iran's behavior in other realms. But in the interests of America's security, the U.S. must not sacrifice real progress for the sake of a Utopian dream.