The Diplomat-in-Chief Hits a National Security Trifecta

President Barack Obama makes a statement on the release of Americans by Iran, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016, in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP

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President Barack Obama makes a statement on the release of Americans by Iran, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016, in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington.

If Barack Obama were a Republican, Congress would have already named an airport after him.

In five days last week, President Barack Obama hit a remarkable national security trifecta. He secured the release of American sailors within hours after they had drifted into Iranian waters, avoiding a major confrontation. He nailed down the dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear complex, effectively making that country a nuclear-weapon-free zone. He topped it off with the dramatic release of five American prisoners held in Iran, including Jason Rezaian, plus Rezaian’s wife and mother.

But there was no outpouring of patriotic joy at these developments. Not one Republican politician praised them. Instead, they rushed to the microphones to denounce aspects of each victory, to turn each into a new attack point.

Outside the Washington political bubble, however, there is an overwhelming expert consensus on the value of these achievements — in particular, the nuclear accord with Iran.

On Monday, for example, 53 national security leaders released a statement praising the agreement as “an unprecedented success in the longstanding international effort to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.” They added that the Iran “is now under some of the most sweeping inspections and transparency obligations in history, many of which will remain in place for decades.”

Signers include senior officials in both Republican and Democratic administrations, including Zbigniew Brzezinski, Brent Scowcroft, Paul O’Neill, William Perry, Ryan Crocker, Richard Lugar and Carla Hills. No one believes the final agreement is perfect; all agree it is far better than any reasonable alternative.

Just five years ago, the talk in Washington was about war. Israeli officials pointed with alarm at the plutonium production reactor that Iran could soon build. It would produce enough plutonium each year for two nuclear bombs, and once it went operational attacking it would spew radioactivity through the region. Prime Minister Netanyahu was pressing his cabinet to strike soon, before it opened. Some Americans wanted to carpet-bomb Iran, even send in tens of thousands of U.S. troops to seize the nuclear plants.

No one believes the final agreement is perfect; all agree it is far better than any reasonable alternative.

But diplomacy proved superior to military action. Iran has surrendered its nuclear-weapons capabilities. It has ripped out two-thirds of its centrifuges for enriching uranium, shipped out 98 percent of its stockpile of uranium gas, and accepted strict limits on all its activities for at least 15 years. The ban on Iran developing nuclear weapons and the unprecedented inspection regime praised by experts have no expiration date. Like diamonds, they last forever. Instead of soldiers, we have inspectors patrolling Iran’s nuclear complex, monitoring the facilities 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Perhaps the most significant victory is with the plutonium reactor. Iran pulled out its core, drilled it full of holes, and filled it with concrete. It is, like Monty Python’s parrot, no more. It has ceased to be. It is expired. It is an ex-reactor. If Iran rebuilds the reactor, it must do it in a way that does not produce weapons-usable plutonium.

Experts praise what politicians criticize because they understand that this level of voluntary destruction has few historic precedents. One has to go back to the agreements negotiated by Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton in the early 1990s that convinced Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan to destroy thousands of nuclear weapons. But those weren’t their weapons; they had inherited them from the collapse of the Soviet Union. Iran surrendered facilities in which it had invested years of labor, billions of dollars and enormous national pride.

Diplomacy defused this crisis.

Closer perhaps is South Africa’s destruction, during the H. W. Bush administration, of six nuclear weapons in 1991. But the apartheid regime had secretly built those and was eliminating them before the transition to majority rule, muting the political impact of its disarmament.

The closest comparison has to be Ronald Reagan’s historic negotiations with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev that led to the destructions of thousands of U.S. and Soviet nuclear missiles based in Europe and, later, cutting their global arsenals in half.

The Soviet-U.S. arms race was considered the gravest nuclear threat of its era; diplomacy defused it. Many considered the Iranian program the gravest nuclear threat of this era, not just for the danger Iranian nuclear weapons would have presented but for the regional arms race it could have triggered and the increased risk that terrorist groups would get some of these weapons.

Diplomacy defused this crisis. This is why many consider the agreement one of the strongest and most important nuclear security accords in history, praised by world leaders and nuclear policy experts around the globe.

It’s just a shame that Obama picked the wrong political party to join. He could have gotten an airport out of the deal.

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