Iran Deal: A Glass Half-Full Is Better Than Nothing

There were few alternatives.

The only circumstances under which one nation, the United States, can dictate terms to another nation are on the occasion of a military victory, such as Japan’s surrender aboard the USS Missouri, when we have overwhelming strength over another nation and wish to humble it, or when we are representing only ourselves and do not expect to be taken seriously.

The successfully completed first step in bringing Iran into the international order reflects none of these circumstances. Yet critics of this initiative behave as if we could dictate terms and somehow magically achieve elimination of all Iran’s nuclear activities, including its energy program, and increase sanctions at the same time.

Such a unilateral achievement might be supposed in some imaginary universe, but it is not a realistic possibility in the real world of international diplomacy.

Further, the negotiations in Geneva were not conducted by the United States alone, but in collaboration with five other major nations, plus the United Nations, all of which have their own conditions for achieving agreement. Undeniably, Israel’s interests are at stake as well as those of the United States. But it is incumbent on the United States to protect first and foremost its own interests as it defines them, as well as the interests of our allies in Europe and elsewhere.

Secretary Kerry and our allies determined that suspension of Iranian uranium enrichment during a six-month period of stepped-up negotiations is substantially preferable from a security standpoint over continued confrontation and stalemate while Iran continued its enrichment program. To assume otherwise makes little common sense.

Every seasoned politician knows that it is easier to unite a nation around fear than around hope. But fear requires an enemy. And when an enemy is neutralized or, in the case of the collapse of the Soviet Union, simply disappears, the kind of unity that generates militancy erodes. But democratic nations, and particularly the United States, are mature enough to remain vigilant in safeguarding their own security interest without having an enemy to fear. And for those who require an enemy, there is always a nuclear-armed North Korea.

A former president gained renown for repeating a truism: trust but verify. Of course, that principle has underwritten every major arms-control measure since the dawn of the Cold War. No agreement is valid unless it can be monitored and compliance with it can be guaranteed. The Geneva interim agreement, and the comprehensive arrangement that will potentially follow, is no exception. To simply say that the Iranian cannot be trusted totally misses the point. United Nations inspectors will guarantee compliance or all bets are off.

Additionally, to focus on what an interim agreement does not achieve also misses the point. Any international agreement involving a half-dozen or more sovereign nations produced after a relatively few weeks is bound to be temporary and provisional. Had Secretary Kerry and his allied colleagues insisted on final terms, particularly one-sided ones burdening only the Iranians, negotiations would have been sufficiently prolonged such that Iran’s achievement of weapons-grade status would have been virtually guaranteed.

A glass half-full is always preferable to a glass totally empty.

To refuse to have diplomatic exchanges with Iran, or to insist on total capitulation to our demands, is to guarantee continued stalemate and therefore danger. Would we prefer an Iran of nearly eighty million people left to its own devices or under international supervision? There are few alternatives to isolation or engagement. Like diplomatic recognition itself, engagement does not connote approval. As it must be endlessly repeated, we do not negotiate with our friends. We negotiate with those with whom we disagree.

After years of Cold War rhetoric demanding that we not negotiate with the Soviets—they couldn’t be trusted, they were out to destroy us, and so forth (even while we had diplomatic relations all the while)—one would think the merits of diplomacy and engagement would be obvious. But there will always be those who fear that the loss of an enemy may lead to the loss of national resolve.

So, once again, we must restate the old truths: negotiations cost much less in lives and dollars than do isolation, confrontation and armaments.

Now our goal must be to make the glass completely full.

Gary Hart was a member of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee from 1975 to 1987.