Passionate supporters of the interim accord recently negotiated between Iran and the P5+1 countries (the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany) see the agreement as a landmark event paving the way for a full-scale resolution of one of the world’s most dangerous problems. Harsh critics take the opposite view, seeing it as a modern-day Munich paving the way for an eventual nuclear Iran. Both positions are overblown. On the plus side, the Joint Plan of Action does place some temporary constraints on Iran's nuclear activities. But these short-term palliative measures are embedded in a framework of principles that may define the final agreement to Iran's definite advantage. As negotiations proceed over what should follow the current accord, Washington should try to revisit some of interim agreement’s provisions and broaden the scope of negotiations to include Iran's sponsorship of terrorism and its systemic violation of human rights. It would be a grave error to allow the Islamic Republic to emerge from the negotiations with its nuclear ambitions intact, its terrorist activities undiminished, and its people denied their basic rights.

The new Iranian leadership led by President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is made up of seasoned and cagey negotiators who have handled Iran's nuclear portfolio for decades. Their strategy has always been to concede to interim demands in order to secure principles that will favorably define a final, comprehensive agreement. In the Geneva talks this fall, Iran secured a major goal -- the ability to continue to enrich uranium. After decades of wrangling, the international community has finally conceded Iran's claim that its nuclear program must have an indigenous enrichment capability. The Iranians extracted another concession as well -- that the final agreement will itself be an interim one. The Joint Plan of Action stipulates that the comprehensive accord will "have a specific long-term duration to be agreed upon," after which the "Iranian nuclear program will be treated in the same manner as that of any other non-nuclear weapon state party to the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty)." This means that at some point in the future, Iran may be able to construct an industrial-size nuclear infrastructure that will provide it with a nuclear breakout capacity. 

As the talks proceed, the international community has an opportunity to reconsider these and other concessions. The restrictions imposed on Iran’s nuclear program should be permanent and foreclose the possibility that at any point Iran can produce nuclear weapons. Among the measures that should be insisted on are the shuttering of Iran's heavy-water reactor at Arak, the closing of its fortressed enrichment installation nestled in the mountains at Fordow, and the shipping out of the country of all of its enriched uranium. Any verification agreement should include the so-called additional protocol, which gives international inspectors the right to examine any facility they deem suspect, and to do so on short notice, so that proscribed activities or equipment cannot be moved or hidden. 

As a further safeguard, sanctions against Iran should be suspended rather than dismantled. The UN Security Council resolutions have provided the legal foundation that made the imposition of EU sanctions possible. These resolutions, meticulously negotiated over the past decade by two administrations, should not be "comprehensively lifted," as the agreement suggests, but put on hold, so that they could be resurrected quickly should Iran violate its pledges. This measure would increase the Obama administration’s leverage and complement the current congressional legislation that would impose additional sanctions on Iran should the negotiations not end in a deal. 

The non-nuclear behavior of Iran’s regime, moreover, should not be excluded from arms control deliberations. Even if a nuclear deal is possible, the question remains whether this agreement will signal a genuine change in Iran's behavior. Would a non-nuclear Tehran be content to participate as a responsible member of the regional order, or would it continue to work to upend it through support for terrorist groups? The Islamic Republic routinely violates UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls for "disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias." Every time Iran dispatches arms to Hezbollah, its lethal protégé, it violates this agreement. Iran's support for other terrorist groups, particularly those attacking Israel, must also be part of the ongoing nuclear talks. Iran cannot be a custodian of sensitive nuclear technologies while remaining the world's leading sponsor of terror.

How the Iranian regime treats its own people, meanwhile, will be another important signal as to whether it wants to become a more responsible member of the international community. The Obama administration has been reluctant to discuss Iran's abuse of its citizens for fear that it might scuttle the nuclear negotiations. Its worry is misplaced. The United States has precedent and negotiating leverage on its side. The precedent dates from the second term of the Reagan administration, where the full-throated affirmation of American values accompanied a robust assertion of U.S. national security interests. As secretary of state, George Shultz never hesitated to put forth issues of human rights and the plight of imprisoned dissidents, even as he discussed deep cuts with Moscow. Further, any long-term understanding with Iran will rest not with the mullahs but with the young people and the democracy advocates who led the ill-fated Green Revolution, and who continue to look to the United States to support their aspirations. Washington must keep faith with them by continuing to speak out against the regime’s violation of human rights and by raising this issue in international forums. 

Finally, to succeed in nuclear negotiations with Iran, the Western powers should be mindful of some basic realities. Iran needs an agreement more than the United States does. Its battered economy and disaffected populace constitute important leverage for its negotiating partners. There is no reason for Washington to seem more eager than Tehran to reach an agreement, and it should not fear the possibility of a negotiating breakdown if its legitimate demands are not met. The only final deal worth signing is one that promises a better future for the United States, its friends and allies in the region, and the Iranian people.

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  • Mitchell B. Reiss is the president of Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland. He served as director of policy planning at the State Department from 2003 to 2005. Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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