Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts

Making Real-World Decisions

As Congress debates the deal forged by the United States and five other world powers to restrict Iran's nuclear ambitions, many opponents are asking the wrong question: Is this a perfect deal that solves all of our problems with Tehran?

Of course it's not perfect. Far from it. But that's not a fair standard; perfection is impossible. Any negotiated agreement among rivals always contains pluses and minuses, costs and benefits.

The right questions are these: Will this deal severely limit Iran's bomb-making capacity? Will it make the Middle East significantly safer? Is it better than no deal at all?

On balance, the answers to those questions is clearly "yes."

"The alternative to the deal we've reached isn't ... a better deal, some sort of unicorn arrangement involving Iran's complete capitulation," Secretary of State John Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "That's a fantasy."

Nicholas Burns, the former Under Secretary of State who handled Iran negotiations under President George W. Bush, made a similar point in the Wall Street Journal: "If I could get an ideal solution ... where the Iranians submitted to every demand we had, I would take that. In a real world, you have to make real-world decisions."

In the real world, it's important for proponents to admit what the deal does not accomplish: It will not completely eliminate Iran's nuclear infrastructure, which would stay frozen for 15 years but could be thawed out at the end of that period.

And it will not eliminate what Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter calls Tehran's "malign influence" throughout the Middle East -- its support of terrorist organizations that threaten the region's stability and American allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia.

But there are four critical ways in which the agreement does enhance security and make it worth supporting:

-- Right now, without any agreement, most experts believe Iran is only two or three months away from building a bomb. With this agreement, that margin of safety is extended "to at least a year for the next decade," as Burns, now a Harvard professor, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

-- The pact follows Ronald Reagan's adage, "trust but verify." The Iranians will probably try to cheat, because they always have. But they will be subject to "an intrusive inspection regime led by the International Atomic Energy Agency to ensure access to any suspect facility inside Iran, including military facilities," says Burns.

-- Iran will get relief from crushing economic sanctions and gain access to perhaps $150 billion in blocked assets. International support for those sanctions was already crumbling, however, and without an agreement, could continue to erode. Under this deal, the sanctions will be lifted gradually, as Iran proves its good intentions, and can rapidly snap back into place if those "intrusive inspections" reveal a pattern of evasion.

-- There is only one alternative to a negotiated settlement that contains Iran's atomic aspirations: military force. Since the country's facilities are widely scattered and well-protected, even concerted air strikes could well fail to cripple their capacity. And as Burns notes, "The use of force carries with it the risk of unintended consequences and could spark a wider conflict."

Unfortunately, the debate on Capitol Hill is not about these "real world" issues and the practical alternatives.

Some Republicans distrust President Obama so deeply that they are immune to rational arguments. Others are determined to prevent the president from scoring a diplomatic triumph that Democrats could use to bolster the presidential candidacy of Obama's former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton.

Even some Democrats are worried about Israel's adamant opposition to the deal, and it's certainly true that the Israelis have a lot of credibility here. Tel Aviv is only 987 miles from Tehran; Washington is 6,338.

Accordingly, the president has to make two ironclad promises to our friends in the region: 1. We will continue to supply them with the latest military technology, and 2. We will continue to maintain, clearly and convincingly, the threat of military action against Iran if it moves toward acquiring a nuclear weapon.

But geography also taints and truncates Israel's perspective. Like many Republicans in Congress, Israeli leaders stress the risks and not the rewards, the negatives and not the positives, of any agreement with Iran.

Both groups ignore the fact that inaction carries risks as well. The status quo remains dangerously unstable, and that's the case Obama has to make.

In the real world, embracing this deal, with all its flaws, is safer and smarter than rejecting it.

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