A CONVERSATION: Is the deal struck with Iran good or bad?

Editor’s note: Jaw-jawing, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, seems to have yielded dividends in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program. In Vienna on July 14, Iran and six world powers (the US, China, France, Russia, Germany and the United Kingdom) signed a deal that limits Iran’s nuclear activity in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. Here scholars give their initial reactions to the agreement and its significance.The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action negotiated between Iran, the United States, and five other major powers is a diplomatic masterpiece writ large and small.

It can ensure that Iran’s nuclear program will be exclusively peaceful and help Iran reintegrate politically and economically into the international community, two objectives that have eluded leaders for decades. The specific actions to be taken at each stage by each party are spelled out in carefully crafted terms that address the technical and the political concerns of all parties. Successfully implementing the JCPOA, however, will require even more skill, sustained hard work and attention to detail.

Presidents Obama and Rouhani must now persuade their respective legislatures to approve a deal that gives everyone what they need, but does not give anyone everything that they want. Because this is not a legally binding agreement that puts any constraints on U.S. nuclear capabilities or military operations, it does not need to be approved by the normal ratification requirement of two-thirds of the Senate. Instead, the administration agreed to give both houses of Congress 60 days to review the JCPOA and vote to approve or disapprove the terms before Obama can suspend any sanctions.

Some members of Congress have already gone on record with criteria for a “good deal” that neither Iran nor any other country has ever voluntarily accepted, including anytime, anywhere, anyone, anything access rights for international inspectors. Setting technically impossible and politically unobtainable standards for verification is one of the oldest tricks in the book used to block arms control without admitting that you have no real interest in cooperation on any terms.

But the biggest danger during this process is not that Congress will vote down the deal -- as my own research shows, the public overwhelmingly supports making an agreement along these lines even in very Republican states, and critics have offered no credible proposals for achieving a better outcome by trying to impose more sanctions or going to war. Instead, the main risk is that the administration will try to buy support from skeptical members of Congress by agreeing to things that hinder implementation of the deal or hurt chances for expanding cooperation.

Rather than taking responsibility for killing the deal outright, opponents of a nuclear agreement with Iran will try to erode support for it in the United States by doing everything they can to raise doubts about Iran’s nuclear program while undermining support for it in Iran by slow-rolling sanctions relief and political re-engagement. They will also try to offset any economic or technological gains that Iran receives for fulfilling its side of the bargain by giving or selling advanced weaponry to U.S. allies in the region.

Part of the beauty of the JCPOA is that it includes many provisions meant to head off misunderstandings and devious moves whenever possible. It also includes fair procedures so parties can address compliance concerns and implementation problems cooperatively as needed. As a work of art, the JCPOA is more like the script for a play than it is like a finished painting. If all the negotiating parties, backed by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the rest of the international community, stay focused on what they are trying to create together, play their parts well and improvise creatively when the unexpected occurs, then the results will deserve a standing ovation.