There is nothing surprising about the interim deal with Iran except that it was signed. It is true that one side or the other might have gained a little more had it held out a bit longer, but the benefits would have been slight. For the West, the advantages of the arrangement are obvious: Iran will be a bit further away from gaining the capability to produce a bomb, it will find it harder to cheat in the face of increased inspections, and it will gain some limited and temporary sanctions relief. In addition, each side will have more reason to trust the other. 

The objections of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others are really less to the interim agreement than to the ultimate deal that is most likely to result. In terms of the nuclear program, any long-term agreement will look quite a bit like the current one. Although the West will not formally recognize Iran’s “right to enrich,” it will acknowledge its enrichment program, albeit with a number of restrictions. The details have yet to be negotiated, but limits would likely be placed on the number and type of centrifuges Iran could deploy, the level to which it could enrich uranium (to five if not 3.5 percent), and the size of the stockpile it could retain (probably about the same as now). Controls would be placed on Iran’s Arak reactor, perhaps even changing it from a heavy-water unit to a more proliferation-resistant light-water one. Inspections would be ramped up in order to give the world confidence that Iran is not enriching uranium at secret sites, and there would have to be interviews with members of the Iranian unit working on warhead design, including Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.

To be sure, success is not guaranteed, especially because of domestic politics in both the United States and Iran. Even under the best circumstances, there will be hard bargaining, especially over what sanctions should be lifted and when. Each side will seek arrangements that are relatively easy for it to reverse but lock the other side in as much as possible. If these negotiations cannot reach fruition, the interim arrangements might be extended, although they would probably have to be accompanied by some new sanctions relief, since the funds the West are now releasing will be used up in the next six months.

Whether a long-term agreement is reached or something less is patched together, the point would not be to prevent a nuclear breakout, which is impossible, but to ensure that the West would detect it in a timely manner and could disrupt it (and that Iran would understood that to be the case). This is the crucial point. The West -- the world, really -- needs to be confident that there would be a gap of at least two or three months between prohibited activities being detected and nuclear weapons actually appearing. Critics see this timeline as being much too short, arguing that Iranian cleverness and western fecklessness could combine to reduce it to zero, and that two or three months is not enough time to react.

The first point has more merit than the second but is less sensitive to the timeline. The response that Iran would have to fear would not be the re-imposition of sanctions, which take time to put in place and to have significant effect, but bombing. The United States could easily keep plans for such an attack at the ready. Its decision to use them, although perhaps difficult, would not have to take long. Indeed, it is not clear that bombing would be more likely if the world had plenty of advance notice. It would frighten U.S. leaders more if Iran were months rather than years away from a nuclear bomb. Still, it is not clear whether the difference really matters. How the United States, Israel, and others would respond would be largely determined by their calculations of the gains and losses from alternative courses of action and their willpower. Additional time is not likely to produce a different response.

For those who argue that any agreement must require Iran to give up its “nuclear capacity,” no window of time before Iran gets the bomb is enough. But even if the Natanz enrichment facility and others like it were destroyed, short of killing the scientists and technicians involved (and seeing that no new ones are trained), this could not be done. The program could always be re-started. The slogan that Iran should give up the bomb really just means that there should be even more time between the (re)start of the program and when bombs could be produced.

The added safety that would come from Iran dismantling its nuclear program would certainly be preferable, but one has to ask whether this is a realistic possibility. Critics of the interim agreement assert that it is. And this gets to the nub of the disagreement. Of course, proof is impossible, and the sanctions levied over the past two years have had more effect than many expected. It is noteworthy, however, that almost no experts expect that the West could put enough pressure on Iran to force it to disarm. For much of Iran’s population -- not only the hard-liners -- the enrichment program is a symbol of the country’s sovereignty, independence, and ability to stand up to the West. Given Iranian pride in the country’s long history and the memories of Anglo-American indirect control during much of the twentieth century, to give in would be a humiliation and an acknowledgement that Iran could occupy only a subordinate place in the world.

It is true that countries sometimes do accept the unacceptable, and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini did agree to forgo his commitment to overthrowing Saddam Hussein and end the Iran-Iraq war when he came to believe (incorrectly) that the United States would intervene militarily if he did not. Indeed, it could be argued that, if the proponents of the deal are correct that Iran has made major concessions in this round, then the appropriate conclusion is that sanctions are extraordinarily powerful and, if continued, could bring complete victory. But to refuse an agreement in the expectation that sanctions would lead Iran’s current leaders to back down is to gamble against the odds.

Of course, fears about Iran are not limited to its nuclear program. Its support of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah threaten the interests and violate the values of the United States and its allies. The Islamic regime by its very nature also constitutes a threat to Saudi Arabia and the Sunni-dominated Gulf states. Most of the critics of the interim arrangement argue that it leads down the wrong path because they see increased sanctions not as a way to a better bargain but as a way to the collapse of the current regime. A permanent agreement, even if it kept Iran from gaining nuclear weapons, would lift enough of the sanctions that life in Iran would become much better and the regime would gain greater domestic support.

It is justifiable to be worried about the regime’s resurgence. Sanctions have brought the Supreme Leader around to the position of making concessions because he fears for the future of his regime. And that, critics argue, is the real reason that the deal must be rejected. The association of regime change with the policies of President George W. Bush should not lead the United States to reject this argument out of hand. Although it is hard to find historical parallels or evidence in the current Iranian scene that would lead one to expect this policy to succeed, stranger things have happened.

It remains doubtful, however, that such a surprise would be in store here. The central point is that the debate over the merits of the interim agreement and the likely successor should turn on whether continued and enhanced sanctions could break Iran’s will, if not lead to regime change. But if these possibilities seem remote, then the interim agreement and what is likely to follow will be good deals in an imperfect world, especially compared to bombing.

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  • ROBERT JERVIS is Adlai E. Stevenson Professor of International Politics at Columbia University and a member of the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies.
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