The Iran Nuclear Accord: Dangerous deal or step toward truce?

Whether it was an olive branch signaling a new era of peace or a trumpet sounding the coming of World War III, the Iran nuclear accord has opened a new chapter for the United States in security and international policy.


October 20, 2015

Illustration courtesy of the Washington Institute for Near East Studies
Illustration courtesy of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy

By Matthew McConnell

Whether it was an olive branch signaling a new era of peace or a trumpet sounding the coming of World War III, the Iran nuclear accord has opened a new chapter for the United States in security and international policy. Republicans and Democrats are lining up on opposite sides of the aisle to tell us what the deal means for the future. How can we know what to think? How might this affect us in our everyday lives?

To discuss the deal, Oregon State faculty and students will gather in a public meeting in the Special Collections and Archives Research Center, located on the fifth floor of the Valley Library, at 4 pm November 5. Oregon State’s Citizenship and Crisis Initiative — directed by history professor Christopher Nichols — has organized the event to explore the historical roots of the accord and to consider its impact on enduring questions of war and peace.

Panelists include:

  • Christopher Nichols, member of the world-wide Council on Foreign Relations
  • Jonathan Katz, professor of history whose research has focused on Iranian history and Islamic political theory
  • Linda Richards, instructor in the history of science whose research has focused on issues related to human rights and the history of nuclear technologies
  • Mark Schanfein, senior proliferation adviser at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, former employee of the International Atomic Energy Agency
  • Susan Voss, nuclear engineer, president of Global Nuclear Network Analysis, a consulting firm, and former employee of the Los Alamos National Laboratory

The discussion will be moderated by Jacob Hamblin, associate professor of the history of science who co-organized the event with Nichols. Hamblin has written in Diplomatic History on the “Nuclearization of Iran” and is director of the Environmental Arts and Humanities Initiative at Oregon State.

On October 13, the accord — known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — was approved by the Iranian Parliament. U.S. Congress approved the deal in September with no Republican votes. Conservatives argued that it breaks with traditionally strong support of Israel and lacks prevention for arms deals between Iran and countries like Russia and China. Concerns were also raised that lifting Iranian sanctions would provide billions of dollars of increased revenue to a country known to financially support terrorism. Even among Democrats and Iranians who support the accord, there have been heated debates.

American citizens need to know about what’s in the deal, say Nichols, because it will be used by lobbyists who are keen to sway political sentiment and by presidential candidates looking for votes.

“The deal itself is complicated, and there has been a great deal said without proper attention to crucial facts and details,” Nichols explains. “So, it is all the more important for us to leverage the tremendous people and insights we have here at OSU. We are bringing together experts from numerous fields to discuss and inform the wider public about central aspects of the deal, the history of Iran, the Middle East, the U.S., the past and present of non-proliferation… and much more.”

Nuclear Beginnings

The United States and Iran have not always been at odds. In the 1960s construction on Iranian nuclear reactors began with American help under the banner of President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” program, and, as recently as 1978, President Jimmy Carter called Iran an “island of stability” in a turbulent corner of the world. Only a year later, the Shah’s regime was overthrown, and a group of university students occupied the American embassy and took 52 hostages. In the 1980s, President Reagan decided to stop the Iranian nuclear program Americans had helped to start. The United States wanted to prevent development of fuel cycle technology because it could be used to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. Despite this fear, the International Atomic Energy Agency has never found any evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program.

Today, we live in a world both threatened by and hopeful for a nuclear future. From the Contra scandal of the 1980s to the discovery of a secret Iranian enrichment program that spurred nuclear nightmares, we are reminded of the very real legacy of the Cold War in the world today. Linda Richards, a panelist in the November 5 event, feels the deal is an important opportunity for Americans to learn not only about Iran but about our own nuclear history.

“This summer,” she explains, “I was on a phone conference call hosted by 25 U.S. churches before the agreement was voted on by the Senate. Over 600 people were on this one call, just to get information about the Iran Nuclear Agreement.”

While many were interested in learning more about Iran’s nuclear policy, Richards noticed that many participating Americans were unaware of our own nuclear policy. The United States is currently engaged in expanding, modernizing and increasing the power of our existing nuclear weapons.

“All of this,” she points out, “is in defiance of our own international agreements to disarm (nuclear) weapons to zero.” The question is not just: How can the United States keep the world safe from nuclear threats? The question that must also be addressed is: What kind of example is our country setting for nuclear leadership?

In the end, Richards feels the accord can be viewed as a positive step. Its emphasis on conflict resolution, mediation and negotiation are elements of compromise that have “trickled up from the grassroots to the highest diplomats.”

“On the church-sponsored phone conversation,” she adds, “it was said the Iran Nuclear Agreement was the most significant event thus far of the 21st century… I hope so, and I hope it gets us back on track to creating the world we want to leave to the future.”

Until that future comes, we can only wait and wonder how best to live in a world where the use of nuclear power continues to grow while nuclear arsenals still stand at the ready. In the meantime, with presidential races heating up, expect to keep hearing about Iran. Far from being over, this debate will continue between liberal and conservative commentators.

But that doesn’t mean you have to tune them out.

Elected U.S. leaders may determine the future of international nuclear policy, but citizens can learn about the deal and make their voices heard. By engaging in public discussion about this accord with Iran, Americans can show politicians and presidential contenders what is important to them. If Americans don’t get involved, policy makers will continue to make these decisions based only on what they — and not the public — think is best for the country.

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Editor’s note: Matt McConnell is a master’s student in the History of Science Program at Oregon State.

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