Once again, the debate is all about numbers. Are 5,060 centrifuges too many or just right? Is it okay if Iran keeps 300 kilograms of low-enriched uranium that cannot be enriched more than 3.67 percent? Or is that too much? Is a five-year weapons embargo enough? Is 12 months lead time before enough fuel for a nuclear weapon could be amassed acceptable?
Or do these numbers, hammered out over years of negotiations between world powers and Iran, amount to “a bad mistake of historic proportions” as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed immediately after agreement was reached in Vienna?
As important as they are, it’s time to put aside the heated debate over details and understand more broadly what the deal represents. The pact made in Vienna is one of the most daring gambles in history, similar in its dimensions to the attempts by U.S. President Richard M. Nixon to diplomatically integrate Mao’s China. At the time, it was not known whether the hermetically sealed, anti-Western regime would truly open up. Europeans may be reminded of the German Ostpolitik. In both those cases, the hope for change was tied to the risk of failure.
And yet there is a sense of the inevitable to the endeavors in Vienna. Inevitable because things couldn’t go on like that forever. Bringing Iran in from the cold is a task for the coming years. There is no other way to stop the devastating intra-Muslim civil war between Sunnis and the Shi’ites or to halt the advance of Islamic State militants.
Whether the West and its allies like it or not, Iran is the most stable country in the Middle East today and not simply because of repression. Iran is the only nation in the region whose naturally twisting borders were not drawn by colonial powers. Iran has a national and cultural identity reaching back thousands of years, which the religious extremism embraced by present-day rulers has never been able to erase.
And, by the way, nowhere are clerics as unpopular with the people as they are in Iran, which boasts a youthful population that is well educated, critical and very open-minded toward the West. It contains vast natural resources. And while the political system is a pseudo democracy, it still is more open and flexible than, for example, Saudi Arabia. Despite enormous suppression, a dynamic civil society and critical public survive. Women, too, are better off in Iran than in many of the tribal societies of the Middle East, though they are required to wear the hijab, the Islamic veil.