By Louis Kriesberg, Maxwell Professor Emeritus of Social Conflict Studies, Syracuse University

The evidence favoring the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed in July 2015, is before our eyes. It was negotiated between the Iranian government and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council: the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China and one other: Germany (P5+1). For much of the time prior to the negotiated interim agreement, the US pursued a highly bellicose policy toward Iran and Iran speeded its development of a nuclear program that could be preparatory to having nuclear weapons capability. That history also makes evident why the rejection of the signed Iran agreement is likely to have extremely grave consequences for the US.

The negotiations followed a well-regarded strategy for untangling protracted highly complex conflicts: tackle a single element in the conflict and settle it.
Following the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, Iran was helpful in several ways, including overthrowing the Taliban by supporting the Northern Alliance Afghan troops, helping establish the government in Kabul headed by Karzai, and denying sanctuary to escaping Al Qaeda members. Nevertheless, in President George W. Bush’s first State of the Union address, in January 2002, he called Iran, together with Iraq and North Korea, an “Axis of Evil.” The Iranian government could reasonably believe that it was threatened by the US. It energetically sped the advancement of nuclear programs that could enhance the development of nuclear weapons as well as nuclear energy. The Bush administration chastised the Iranian government and imposed some economic sanctions. These actions certainly did not slow Iran’s nuclear development program.

President Barack Obama’s administration undertook a different strategy. It recognized Iran’s right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, engaged with Iranian officials with civility and respect, and explored possible arrangements that might preclude Iran’s attaining nuclear weapons. At the same time, the Obama Administration was able to expand UN Security Council sanctions on Iran for failing to cooperate on earlier resolutions and its continued uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities. As in most successful negotiations, a blend of carrots and sticks proved effective.

In August 2013, Hassan Rouhani became president of Iran, following the bombastic and extremist President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Serious conversations now began and in November 2013, the Joint Plan of Action was a pact signed between Iran and the P5+1 countries. It provided for a short-term freeze of portions of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for decreased economic sanctions on Iran. This was implemented and it ultimately led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The negotiations followed a well-regarded strategy for untangling protracted highly complex conflicts: tackle a single element in the conflict and settle it. That was done. The JCPOA is a well-crafted, narrow agreement that does not foreclose further actions relating to Iran about many contentious issues and even possible cooperative matters, for example those regarding ISIS. It also enables the US, in solidarity with other signers of the agreement, to negotiate various extensions of the JCPOA, as they expire and when Iran is much further from having nuclear weapons grade uranium than it presently has.

If Congress rejects the signed agreement, US leadership and credibility in the world will be badly damaged. No “re-negotiation” is really feasible. Hardliners in Iran can claim vindication that the US cannot be trusted, and there would be no incentive for Iran to renew negotiations for harsher terms. Nor is it likely that all the other signers of the agreement would renew negotiations after such a development in the US. Iran would naturally resume its nuclear development program. The likely further consequences would be awful to contemplate. I urge readers to encourage members of Congress to approve the agreement and not to return to policies that have so drastically failed in the recent past.


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