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Lissa Weinman, co-owner of 118 Elliot, a new performance space in Brattleboro, introduces former ambassador Peter Galbraith.

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‘A beneficial deal for both sides’

Speaking to Windham World Affairs Council, Galbraith says nuclear agreement between U.S., Iran is better than the alternatives

BRATTLEBORO—Former Ambassador and State Senator Peter Galbraith knows a thing or two about diplomacy.

After many years as a diplomat and consultant in places ranging from East Timor and Croatia to Iraq and Afghanistan, the Townshend resident says he has one simple rule to test the worth of a deal.

“No negotiated agreement does everything that you want,” he said during a talk arranged by the Windham World Affairs Council on July 24 at 118 Elliot. “The measure is, is it better than the alternative?”

When that test is applied to the recently negotiated agreement between Iran and the United States (aided by Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China), Galbraith said he believes both sides got most of what they wanted regarding Iran’s nuclear program.

Under the accord, Iran must eliminate 98 percent of its stockpile of enriched uranium, dismantle two-thirds of its centrifuges that could be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium, and bring the country into full compliance with International Atomic Energy Agency regulations.

In exchange, the international economic sanctions imposed on Iran would be relaxed, which would bring a sizable windfall to the reformist government of Iranian leader Hassan Rouhani.

Congress will be voting on this agreement in the coming weeks, and Galbraith said it is likely that the Republican majorities in both houses will reject it, even though President Obama will likely veto any Republican attempt to block the deal.

“The Senators want hearings, and they want a vote, but they also want this deal to succeed,” said Galbraith.

But what would happen if Congress got the two-thirds majority that it would need to override President Obama’s veto, and scuttled the deal?

“In the most optimistic scenario, the sanctions would continue,” Galbraith said, “but the Iranians might just go for a nuclear weapon, and then what are your alternatives? The critics have not explained what they would do. But do we think the American people and world opinion would tolerate a sustained bombing campaign?”

A nation on the verge

Galbraith offered a relatively optimistic view of Iran and its people. He said he visited there for three weeks in April, and found “a fascinating nation on the verge of very significant changes."

He said he doesn’t believe the clerics who currently rule Iran will be in power for much longer, because Iran is a country that has a large urban population of young people who are better educated, more steeped in social media, and have more favorable attitudes toward the United States than other nations in the Middle East.

About half of Iran’s population is under the age of 30, and has no memory of the 1979 revolution that removed the Shah from power.

“It’s a place where the regime has lost control of large segments of the country,” Galbraith said. “The values of the Islamic Revolution are no longer shared by the population."

He sees the situation as analogous to what happened to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the late 1980s.

“Time is always important in diplomacy. We simply waited out the Soviet Union, and I am quite confident we can wait out this system in Iran,” he said.

One reason why Rouhani’s government agreed to the deal, Galbraith said, is the economic windfall that would come with the release of $100 billion in Iranian assets that have been frozen in overseas accounts under sanctions. Combine that with the potential of up to $20 billion in oil revenues each year with the lifting of international sanctions, and Iran’s economy would be more prosperous.

Not worried about critics

Galbraith brushed off the opposition to the agreement, starting with the argument that Iran might cheat and could clandestinely continue building a nuclear weapon.

“Iran has been two or three months from having a nuclear weapon for the last 20 years.” he said. “The issue is not just how long it would take them to develop one nuclear weapon because, from a strategic point of view, one is not very useful. The question is how long would it take them to develop a nuclear arsenal."

In Galbraith’s view, the answer to that question is that Iran is not interested in building a nuclear weapon, because just having the capability of making one has made other countries take Iran seriously.

Another factor in why Iran didn’t seriously pursue a nuclear weapon is Israel’s long-standing threat to launch unilateral and pre-emptive air strikes against Iran if it built one, Galbraith said.

“Cheating is so risky for Iran, especially since they’ve given up so much to get an agreement,” he said.

Other critics of the agreement are concerned that, once Iran has access to that $100 billion in overseas assets, that money will be funneled into support of terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

“Spending lots of money doesn’t get you better terrorism,” Galbraith replied. “Terrorism is a low-cost activity. You don’t need a billion dollars.”

And Iran has bigger problems to deal with in its region. As Galbraith has often said in recent years, the main source of conflict in the Middle East remain the division within Islam between the Shiites and Sunnis.

As a Shiite-majority nation, Iran borders Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. And Sunni extremists power the terrorist group known as the Islamic State, which is trying to take over Iraq and Syria, as well as the Taliban in Afghanistan and al-Qaeda.

With the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Sunni minority led by Saddam Hussein was removed and the Shiite majority now controls the Iraqi government. It has close ties with Iran, and is united in its opposition to the Islamic State.

With a nuclear agreement in hand, Galbraith believes Iran will cooperate more with the United States in fighting their common foes, namely the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #316 (Wednesday, July 29, 2015). This story appeared on page A1.

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