WASHINGTON - Despite strenuous objections by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and mostly Republican lawmakers here, the new accord between the Iran and the US and five other major powers on Tehran's nuclear program appears to be gaining support here and abroad.
Most of the US foreign policy establishment, including prominent non-proliferation hawks who previously voiced skepticism over prospects for any accord, have rallied behind the six-month deal announced early on Sunday in Geneva after more than three days of intensive talks between Iran and the P5+1 (US, Britain, France, Russia, China plus Germany).
"The interim accord between Iran and the six world powers is a significant accomplishment," according to Richard Haass, the president of the influential Council on Foreign Relations who also
headed the State Department's policy planning office during most of former president George W Bush's first term.
"Those who are opposing the interim accord for what it does not do are asking too much," he wrote in the Financial Times in an implicit criticism of Netanyahu and his backers in Washington who have argued that any agreement should, among other things, require Iran to halt all enrichment of uranium, dismantle most of its 19,000 centrifuges, and begin to stop all work on - if not abandon - its yet-to-be-completed Arak heavy-water facility at the very least.
Similarly, David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, who, in association with the neo-conservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies, has favored increased sanctions against Iran, praised the accord in a Washington Post op-ed as having "accomplish[ed] a great deal", particularly in lengthening the time by at least one month that Iran would need to achieve "nuclear breakout" and significantly increasing the frequency and scope of inspections of its nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Like virtually all other commentators, including those who have long urged the Barack Obama administration to use more carrots and fewer sticks in its diplomacy with Tehran, Albright stressed that the US and its P5+1 partners still face major challenges in negotiating a comprehensive agreement that would effectively prevent Tehran from building a bomb if it chose to do so.
On the international front, Saudi Arabia, Iran's regional arch-rival whose strong opposition to Tehran's nuclear program has been frequently cited in recent months by Netanyahu, cautiously welcomed the deal, asserting that it "could be a first step towards a comprehensive solution for Iran's nuclear program, if there are good intentions".
Several other Gulf states, notably the United Arab Emirates, that have generally followed Riyadh's lead, also offered statements of support.
Their endorsement - however tentative - marked a major setback for Netanyahu, who had spent much of the past several weeks denouncing any interim accord that did not meet his minimum requirements as a "very bad deal".
In addition to his other complaints, the Israeli premier and his top officials have argued that even the relatively modest relief from tough US and international economic sanctions provided by the deal - valued by the Obama administration at less than US$10 billion over the next six months - will inevitably lead to the collapse of the entire international sanctions regime, thus removing the main source of pressure on Tehran to dismantle its programme.
The Obama administration, on the other hand, has strongly rejected this, insisting that it will continue to vigorously enforce the financial and oil sanctions that it says have forced Iran to agree to the constraints contained in the deal, including, among other things, the elimination of its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium, a freeze on its 5% stockpile and on the installation of new centrifuges, and an agreement not to fuel the Arak reactor, as well as the enhanced inspection regime.
Nonetheless, just hours after the agreement was signed in Geneva, Netanyahu came out swinging, calling it a "historic mistake" and suggesting, as he has frequently in the past, that Israel was prepared to launch a unilateral attack against Iran if it felt its security was threatened.
His defiant tone, which has been criticized by former senior Israeli national security officials as counter-productive and potentially damaging to Israel's strategic ties to Washington, was echoed in the US by hard-line neo-conservatives and other hawks who had championed the Iraq invasion 10 years ago, as well as by a number of mostly Republican lawmakers.
Bush's former ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton of the American Enterprise Institute, writing in in the neo-conservative Weekly Standard, denounced the accord as "abject surrender by the United States" and called for Netanyahu to follow through on his threats to take military action.
Insisting that Tehran, despite the much stricter international inspection regime to which it agreed to submit under the accord, would "go to extraordinary lengths" to follow North Korea's path in building secret bomb-making facilities, Bolton warned that "the more time that passes, the harder it will be for Israel to deliver a blow that substantially retards the Iranian program".
"This agreement shows other rogue states that wish to go nuclear that you can obfuscate, cheat, and lie for a decade, and eventually the United States will tire and drop key demands," said Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who echoed Netanyahu and many of his colleagues in calling for Congressional approval of new sanctions despite the deal. "Iran will likely use this agreement - and any that follows that does not require any real concessions - to obtain a nuclear weapons capability."
Some Democrats close to the Israel lobby, notably New York Senator Chuck Schumer and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez, said on Sunday they would also support swift enactment of new sanctions with the caveat that they would take effect if Iran failed to comply with the deal or in six months time, unless a comprehensive agreement was reached.
The administration has warned that any new sanctions legislation before the six-month period would violate the Geneva accord so long as Iran was in compliance.
Nonetheless, the powerful American-Israel Public Affairs Committee came out on Monday in support of new sanctions. In addition to urging congress to press for a comprehensive accord that would "prevent Iran from ever building nuclear weapons", it said "Congress must also legislate additional sanctions, so that Iran will face immediate consequences should it renege on its commitments or refuse to negotiate an acceptable final agreement."
But the Senate's Majority Leader, Harry Reid, who last week said that he, too, would support additional sanctions as early as December 9 when congress returns from its Thanksgiving recess, indicated on Monday that any sanctions measure should first be considered in relevant committees rather than going directly to the Senate floor. That could push new congressional action, if any, until after the new year.
"I don't think congress is going to overturn this agreement," said Gary Samore, a Harvard professor who served as a top proliferation official in Obama's first term and now heads the hawkish United Against a Nuclear Iran. "I just don't think they're going to shoot the country in the foot," he told a teleconference sponsored by the Wilson Center on Monday, calling the accord "good enough to get started on the process which is going to be very challenging".
He said Israel's insistence on zero enrichment as an end-state in negotiations was "not an achievable objective" and that the US and its allies should instead focus on finding agreement on three specific issues: the permissible level of enrichment; the fate of the Arak reactor; and the terms of the final monitoring regime, particularly regarding its ability to detect any covert facilities.
He expressed doubt that a comprehensive agreement could be reached in six months. Instead, "I could imagine another interim deal" that would include more limitations on Iran's nuclear programme in exchange for more sanctions relief, he said.
Jim Lobe's blog on US foreign policy can be read at Lobelog.com