Co-authored by Erica Fein, WAND Nuclear Weapons Policy Director.
In a timeline of events that could have been lifted from an episode of The West Wing, on January 12, ten sailors in the U.S. Navy were taken into Iranian custody just hours before President Obama's State of the Union address. A U.S. Naval vessel had malfunctioned and drifted into Iranian waters where the U.S. sailors were taken captive by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. On January 13, those same ten sailors were released, less than 24 hours later.
Consider that nine years ago in a similar incident, 15 British Royal Navy sailors spent 13 days in Iranian captivity. One of the differences between these two events was that by 2016, the West had opened up diplomatic channels with Iran resulting from the Iran nuclear deal. The agreement, concluded after careful and painstaking diplomacy, allowed the United States and Iran to keep a ship's malfunction from escalating to an international crisis.
Not only has that agreement -- the Iran nuclear deal -- provided new ways to communicate and resolve incidents with a sometimes hostile adversary, it has also strengthened global peace and security by preventing Iran from building a nuclear weapon -- without firing a shot. As a result of the deal, Iran has gone from being two to three months away from enough material for one bomb to one year away. Four days after the U.S. Navy incident in Iranian waters, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced that "Implementation Day" had arrived; that is that Iran had taken the necessary steps under the Iran nuclear deal to receive sanctions relief from the EU and United States. Under the deal, Iran has dismantled or converted its nuclear facilities, shipped out large stores of enriched uranium, and provided the IAEA with wide-ranging access to its facilities. Additionally, it has cooperated with IAEA investigations into its past behavior (in December 2015, the IAEA found that Iran had ceased nuclear weapons work after 2009).
Make no mistake, though it received less fanfare, Implementation Day is as significant an historic achievement as the day the Iran deal was signed. As Secretary of State John Kerry put it,
"[Implementation Day] marks the moment that the Iran nuclear agreement transitions from an ambitious set of promises on paper to measurable action in progress."
On the same day, Iran released five Americans being held as political prisoners in Iran for various lengths of time. The release was well timed, and though it happened through an apparent second diplomatic channel, the communication that occurred was fostered by the nuclear diplomacy efforts.
Despite its success, some members of Congress continue to look for ways to void the deal. They are fixated on Iran's ballistic missile program, its sponsorship of various terror groups, and its human rights abuses. On February 2, House Republicans will vote a second time on the Iran Terror Financing Transparency Act, a bill with a tough name but a counterproductive purpose. If enacted, the legislation would tie Iran's non-nuclear-related behavior to U.S. sanctions relief, which would have the effect of killing the deal. But killing the deal would isolate the United States, as the rest of the world has begun normalizing business ties with Iran.
While President Obama has the votes to sustain a certain veto should the bill reach his desk, deal opponents persist in sending a message that they will stop at nothing to undermine this signature foreign policy achievement.
Safe though the nuclear deal may be for now, supporters of diplomacy with Iran must remain ever vigilant. As its detractors like to point out, the Iran deal is not a treaty. Future presidents can disregard its provisions if they see fit. The diplomatic channel that helped with the safe release of our sailors and the release of five American prisoners can easily dry up with different leadership. As voters make their way to the polls they should remember that only the Democratic candidates have endorsed the Iran deal. While foreign policy doesn't always loom large in elections, this issue should rise to the top of voters' minds. In the end, it is about nothing less than war and peace.
Image Credit: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry takes his seat across from Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on January 16, 2016, at the Palais Coburg Hotel in Vienna, Austria, before a meeting about the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action outlining the shape of Iran's nuclear program. [State Department Photo/Public Domain]