As diplomats for Iran and six world powers negotiated past a Tuesday deadline for a "political understanding" about the future of the Islamic republic's nuclear program, there was speculation that only a vague statement of principles would be released. Critics of the negotiations were primed to seize on such a "fig leaf" to denounce the negotiations anew.
But Thursday, Iran and the so-called P5+1 — the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany — announced "parameters" for an agreement that were highly specific and, frankly, somewhat reassuring. At a minimum they justify continued negotiations with the aim of producing a final compact by the end of June. In the meantime, Congress should refrain from aggressive actions that could undermine the delicate process.
The framework sets out in considerable detail the steps Iran will have to take to be released from economic sanctions, including significant limitations on the number of centrifuges (although more than 5,000 will continue to enrich uranium at the nuclear facility in Natanz) and the destruction or removal from Iran of the original core of a reactor in Arak that could have enabled the production of weapons-grade plutonium. Officials said Iran's "break-out" time to produce a nuclear weapon would rise from two or three months to a year.
As President Obama conceded, "Nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed." Negotiations could still fall apart over a host of technical matters or over the standards the International Atomic Energy Agency will use in determining whether Iran has complied with its commitments — the prerequisite for the lifting of sanctions.
Trusting Iran is a gamble. No one should forget that in the past, it has been deceptive about its nuclear activities. Just last month, the director-general of the IAEA complained that Iran had answered only one of a dozen inquiries about the "possible military dimensions" of its nuclear program. Given Iran's past evasions, it's important that there be a robust monitoring and verification system, and the preliminary agreement is encouraging in that respect.
In welcoming it, Obama said he accepted that Congress could play a useful "oversight role" but warned that "if Congress kills this deal not based on expert analysis, and without offering any reasonable alternative, then it's the United States that will be blamed for the failure of diplomacy. International unity will collapse, and the path to conflict will widen."
We hope those words will be pondered by those members of Congress who have reflexively opposed any possible deal and who may be tempted to sabotage the negotiations. They should also take seriously another point made by the president: that the alternative to a diplomatic agreement is that "we can bomb Iran's nuclear facilities, thereby starting another war in the Middle East and setting back Iran's program by a few years." The details of a final agreement matter, but so does the alternative.