In recent weeks, Iran and the United States, for the first time, have broken through more than a decade of impasse over Iran’s nuclear program. Significant differences remain, but at long last, both governments appear ready to work their way toward a resolution. Yet the US Congress, acting reflexively against Iran, and under intense pressure from Israel, seems ready to shatter the agreement with a bill that takes no account of Iranian political developments, misunderstands proliferation realities, and ignores the dire national security consequences for the United States.
By November 2013, when Iran and the P5+1 group (the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany) announced that they had arrived at an interim deal on Iran’s nuclear program, it had been thirty-three fractious years since Washington and Tehran had reached any kind of formal agreement.
During that long hiatus, the American enmity and distrust of Iran that stemmed from the 1979 hostage-taking had hardened into a one-dimensional view of the Islamic Republic as wholly malign. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial and vicious rants against the existence of Israel confirmed Americans’ worst fears.
On the Iranian side, the list of real and perceived injustices was much longer, beginning with the US-backed overthrow of Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadegh in 1953, US support for Saddam Hussein during the 1980s Iran-Iraq War, in which as many as one million Iranians may have died, and the destruction of an Iranian civilian airliner and its passengers in 1988. Iranians called the US the Great Satan. The US named Iran as part of the Axis of Evil. For most of these decades, even a handshake between officials was taboo and an Iranian who advocated improving the relationship could find himself in Evin prison.
The greatest single cause of friction was the growing evidence that in spite of having signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968, Iran was in fact pursuing nuclear weapons. For more than fifteen years, intelligence and on-the-ground inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) revealed nuclear facilities, imports of nuclear technology, and research that had no civilian use. The scale of Iran’s programs that could have both peaceful and military uses, notably uranium enrichment, was wholly out of proportion to any reasonable civilian need. The IAEA tried for years without success to get answers to a growing list of questions about the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program.
Europeans tried repeatedly to negotiate a solution. In the end, their efforts went nowhere. There were mistakes on the Western side, especially the coupling of extreme demands with minimal incentives for the Iranians. But it also became clear that the Iranian side was not negotiating in good faith. It was simply using the enormous time consumed in fruitless talks to advance its nuclear…
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