I teach my students that foreign policy is persuading other countries to do what you want. The tools available to accomplish this include everything from kind words to cruise missiles. Mixing them properly and with sufficient patience is the art of diplomacy, a task that for the United States has proved challenging even with our closest allies, and altogether necessary with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The United States and Iran have been locked in an adversarial relationship since the 1979 hostage crisis. Having worked for President Jimmy Carter, I viewed the country through the prism of that experience when I served in the Clinton administration. Nevertheless, as secretary of state I felt it important to explore the possibility of developing a less chilly relationship with Iran.
During my time in office, we offered to engage in dialogue, but the Iranians were not ready. In the end, although we improved the relationship on the margins, we failed to make much of a dent in the thick wall of mistrust separating our two countries.
These experiences lead me to be wary of the Iranian regime and realistic about the prospects for an overnight change in U.S.-Iranian relations. But it is dangerous not to pursue dialogue, and experience convinces me that the nuclear agreement between world powers and Iran is a wise diplomatic initiative.
After careful review of its provisions, I have given the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action my strong endorsement.
The prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran has rightfully earned a place at the top of the long list of threats to global stability. No diplomatic agreement or military action could guarantee that Iran will never obtain a nuclear weapon, but even most opponents agree this accord puts that goal firmly out of Iran’s reach for a decade or more. From any vantage point, that is a positive development, but at a time of great turmoil in the Middle East it is especially welcome.
One of the main criticisms that has been leveled against the JCPOA is that it does not address other abhorrent aspects of Iran’s behavior — its support of terrorism, its jailing of several Iranian-Americans, its rhetoric against the United States and Israel or its other destabilizing activities in the broader Middle East. In theory, the United States could have pursued a comprehensive agreement with Iran covering issues beyond the nuclear file, but experience suggests that such an approach would not have yielded results.
By zeroing in on the nuclear issue, the Obama administration took on the most dangerous threat posed by the Iranian regime and brought together the international community around the issue that most united it in opposition to Tehran.
The completion of the nuclear accord does not preclude progress on these other issues. In fact, it gives the United States new tools to shape Iranian behavior. Going forward, the United States should do so by focusing on three key areas:
First, we must subject the implementation of the JCPOA to the strongest oversight possible. Iran has agreed to intrusive, 24/7 measures to monitor and verify its compliance. We should press relentlessly to ensure every one of them is enforced, make clear that we will be closely scrutinizing Iran’s actions and signal our commitment to following through on implementation. For that reason, I welcome reports that the Obama administration will name a respected senior diplomat to coordinate implementation of the agreement. Congress can also play a positive role and needs to be a partner in monitoring the agreement.
Second, we must maintain a robust deterrent in the region, increase our efforts to counter Iranian proxies and further enhance the conventional military capabilities of our allies and partners relative to Iran.
Before the agreement was finalized, the President jump-started this process by convening an historic meeting with Arab leaders at Camp David and since then dispatched Secretary of Defense Ash Carter to Israel and Saudi Arabia to follow up.
Next month, King Salman of Saudi Arabia will come to Washington to continue these discussions. With both Israel and our Gulf partners, we should establish a revamped regional system of security backed by an enduring commitment to their capabilities and strong U.S. guarantees.
Despite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s public opposition to the agreement, it is all but certain that Israel and the United States will move toward completing a new long-term security assistance agreement that will further enhance Israel’s already substantial qualitative military edge. And next year, the United States will significantly augment Israel’s capabilities by delivering to it the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, making it the only military in the region to possess this advanced stealth fighter aircraft.
These steps will increase pressure on Iran and can outweigh any gains its military and intelligence institutions receive as a result of the easing of some international sanctions. But our policy must go beyond isolation and containment. We must use all the foreign policy tools at our disposal.
To that end, the third leg of our approach should involve carefully calibrated engagement with Iran.
It is not insignificant that senior American and Iranian officials have now had regular opportunities to interact and establish relationships. We should build on that, because Iran is not monolithic. It is a country where theocrats and reformers are present at the same time, where there are ideologues exporting hate and a sizable commercial class that wants to engage productively with the world.
It is in America’s interest to cultivate good will with those Iranians who are dissatisfied with the international isolation Iran’s external policies and unelected leaders have brought it. By showing Iran that international cooperation can bring tangible benefits, the agreement provides them with reason to push for further change.
Many people I respect have voiced concerns about this agreement, but I believe the administration has provided solid answers to their questions. It troubles me that many opponents came out against the JCPOA before even reading the text.
The advocates for a vote of disapproval in Congress have also not put forward a viable alternative or any plan to deal with the consequences of rejection. And make no mistake, those consequences would be grave.
Rejection of this accord would leave the United States isolated and Iranian hardliners empowered. It would be practically impossible to reassemble the coalition that united against Iran’s nuclear activities and imposed the robust sanctions regime that brought Iran to the table. Many of our tools of influence in the region would be rendered useless, and it would hurt our ability to lead on a range of pressing global issues.
Rejection of this agreement would be a strategic setback for the United States, one that our rivals and adversaries would not ignore.
In a turbulent Middle East, there is no way to predict what the next decade will bring. But the United States will be in a far better position to shape events in the region with this nuclear agreement in place than without it. This accord is a bold stroke of diplomacy, and an opportunity we must not waste.
Madeleine Albright served as U.S. secretary of state from 1997 to 2001. She is chair of the Albright Stonebridge Group, a global strategic advisory and commercial diplomacy firm, and professor of diplomacy at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.