A Historic Nonproliferation Opportunity

The leaders of Iran and six world powers have finally reached a framework agreement on a long-sought, long-term comprehensive deal designed to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. The deadline for a final agreement is June 30. Once concluded and implemented, the arrangement will block the pathways by which Iran could acquire material for nuclear weapons and put in place enhanced monitoring to guard against a clandestine weapons program in exchange for phased relief from internationally mandated sanctions.

The deal promises to be one of the most consequential and complex nuclear nonproliferation achievements in recent decades. It can significantly reduce the risk of a destabilizing nuclear competition in a troubled region and head off a potentially catastrophic military conflict. It is an opportunity that neither side can afford to squander.

When fully implemented, the multiyear arrangement will significantly reduce Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium to the point that it would take at least 12 months to amass enough uranium enriched to weapons grade for one bomb. The number of installed centrifuges would be cut from about 20,000 to around 6,000; excess centrifuges would be disassembled and put under monitored storage; Iran’s stock of low-enriched uranium would be slashed; and research on advanced centrifuges would be tightly limited and carefully monitored.

The two sides also agree that the design of Iran’s heavy-water reactor project at Arak will be modified to significantly reduce its plutonium output and that Iran will not develop any capability for separating plutonium from spent fuel for weapons.

Iran would allow intrusive international inspections under the terms of an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) additional protocol, plus additional transparency and accountancy measures. The enhanced monitoring system would effectively and promptly detect and help deter a possible future clandestine weapons effort. The deal also can help incentivize Iran to provide the cooperation with the IAEA that is necessary to conclude the investigation of Iran’s past efforts to develop a nuclear warhead and provide transparency sufficient to help ensure that no such efforts continue.

The multiyear, multiphase agreement must be faithfully implemented and carefully monitored. There must also be sufficient domestic support in Iran and the United States to sustain implementation in the years ahead.

The first political hurdle is the U.S. Congress, where many lawmakers will complain that the deal falls short of their expectations in one area or another. Serious lawmakers must assess the deal on the basis of its overall impact on reducing Iran’s nuclear capacity and improving the ability of the international community to detect any future Iranian weapons program.

Some will demand permanent limits on Iran’s nuclear activities. That option has never been in the cards. The comprehensive nuclear agreement between Iran and the six countries (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) would last some 10 to 15 years; the IAEA’s enhanced inspection authority would last indefinitely.

Others will argue that additional, tougher sanctions can coerce Iran to dismantle its nuclear infrastructure altogether. That is a dangerous fantasy. There is no better deal on the horizon. For more than a decade, Iran has resisted pressure to dismantle its nuclear facilities. Additional pressure, even in the unlikely case that Washington could persuade other countries to toughen existing sanctions, would not suddenly persuade Iran’s leaders to capitulate.

In the name of giving Congress a chance to “weigh in,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) has introduced a bill that would delay the implementation to allow Congress to review the deal for 60 days or until Congress could hold an up-or-down vote.

This approach unnecessarily undermines the president’s authority to negotiate effectively with other governments. The bill would revoke the president’s existing legislative authority to waive certain sanctions on Iran, which would complicate the ongoing talks, and give partisans in Congress a means to try to blow up the deal just weeks after it was concluded. A “no” vote would only give Iran an excuse to quickly expand its dangerous nuclear pursuits.

The Senate has advice-and-consent authority on treaties, but the Iran deal is not a treaty. Rather, it is an arrangement between Iran and the six countries to bring Iran into compliance with its obligations.

It is understandable that lawmakers want a say in the matter, but there are other, genuinely constructive ways for Congress to weigh in, such as requiring frequent reports on the implementation of any nuclear deal, establishing presidential certification requirements that relate directly to Iran’s obligations, providing the financial resources for the IAEA and its added work, and being ready to put sanctions back in place on an expedited basis if Iran commits a flagrant violation.

Eventually, Congress will need to take legislative action to permanently remove U.S. nuclear-related sanctions on Iran, once Iran takes the steps required by the agreement.

The emerging agreement with Iran would be a major boost for U.S. and international security, for Israel and other U.S. friends in the region, and for global efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. Congress should strengthen, not undermine, this vital diplomatic effort.