Murari Sharma: Alternatives will be worse

Iran Nuclear Deal

Two days ago, the United States and other countries reached a framework deal with Iran on the Iranian nuclear program. Under the agreement, Iran agreed to reduce its uranium enrichment centrifuges by two-thirds over the next 10 years, reduce its enriched uranium by 98 percent in next 15 year, turn the Fordow uranium enrichment facility into a medical research center and open itself to extensive inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

This agreement is likely push Iran’s prospects of acquiring nuclear weapons at least by a decade or more. A comprehensive agreement will follow by 30 June 2015.

The agreement generated opposite reactions. Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister returned to a hero’s welcome to Tehran where the Iranian people look forward to the lifting of the international community’s economic sanctions and having an easier time. American secretary of state John Kerrey was not so fortunate. Kerry faces jeers and boos from Congress, especially from the Republicans.

More broadly, Germany, France, Russia and China have welcomed the agreement. British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has said: “This is well beyond what many of us thought possible even 18 months ago . . . There is a very rigorous transparency and inspection regime with access for international inspectors on a daily basis, high-tech surveillance of all the facilities, TV cameras, electronic seals on equipment, so we know remotely if any equipment has been moved.”

In sharp contrast, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the members of US Congress, particularly the Republicans, have opposed it. While they may have genuine concerns, their opposition to the agreement is plain wrong.

Israel’s opposition to the deal is understandable but untenable. Iran has not accepted the Jewish state’s right to exist and its leaders have occasionally have vowed to destroy it. But it was wrong for Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu to address the US Congress opposing the deal before it was inked without taking President Obama into confidence days before the general elections in his country.

He knew, and so did Obama, that the United States has had no better option than a negotiated deal to thwart Iran. The call of the former US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, for war against Iran in his recent New York Times article is a non sequitur. First, America cannot afford to fight another war in the Middle East. Second, an external attack will only unify the Iranians behind an accelerated program of making the bomb as a deterrent.

The Sunni Saudi Arabia is rightly concerned that if its Shia rival has a bomb, it will further expand its tentacles in the Arab world. Iran is already presenting a challenge to the Sunnis from Lebanon to Syria to Yemen.  While it is in the US interest to defend its allies in Riyadh, the Obama administration is not blind to the fact that American and Saudi strategic interests are gradually diverging, mainly due to the declining US dependence on Saudi oil and the Saudi support for Muslim fundamentalists like ISIS and Al-Qaida.

That brings us to the US lawmakers. American legislators are genuinely worried that their allies in the Middle East, particularly Israel, will face a serious challenge from a nuclear powered Iran. The framework agreement just signed should have allayed their fears, because Tehran will have no bomb for at least a decade. However, the opposite has happened. Why?

The answer could be quite complex. First, the American lawmakers appear to have refused to acknowledge the divergence of strategic interests between the United States and Israel. They are too smart not to see it, but they resist admitting it due to ideology or loyalty to Israel. Such refusal manifests itself at two levels.

One, the United States wants to keep the newly belligerent Russia at bay by preventing Iran-Russia relations and cooperation from deepening further and rapidly growing strategic heft of China. Israeli interests are regional and do not include containing Russia or China. Two, Washington still believes in the two-state solution, whereas Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu made it clear on the eve of his country’s recent general elections that he does not believe in the two-state solution and will not allow it to happen on his watch.

Second, the US legislators may fear that Tehran will cheat on the agreement, which is possible. But through intrusive inspections, the agreement helps to reveal if it does so. If there were no agreement, as the opponents prefer to have a flawed one, there would be no way to find that Iran is clandestinely making the bomb. So it is better to have the agreement than not to have it.

Third, the Republicans in Congress want their voice in such momentous decisions. If that is the case, it is not entirely wrong. But since such agreements have not always been subjected to the Senate’s approval, they can claim no strong locus standi on this accord either.

Fourth and most important, politically tinted glasses often distort vision. Perhaps, the Republicans in US Congress do not want President Obama to succeed. The circumstantial evidence is irrefutable: They have passed a bill seeking to abolish Obamacare more than 50 times; opposed his immigration measures; written a letter to the Iranian regime not to strike a deal with Obama; called Obama an illegitimate president. The Republicans would not want to give Obama the credit of preventing Iran from having a nuclear bomb.

But this would be irresponsible and myopic in foreign affairs. It would weaken not only Obama’s standing, but also reduce America’s heft in the international community. So anyone who cares about America’s positive role in the world – which has not always been positive, though – should take their foot off the anti-Obama accelerator and welcome the Iran nuclear deal as an unprecedented opportunity to prevent Tehran from acquiring a nuclear bomb anytime soon.

The agreement is just the first step towards the comprehensive deal, but it is a step in the right direction. Do not scuttle it, because the alternative – war or no agreement — would be much worse.

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