With an agreement having been reached between the United States and Iran, concerned citizens and clergy from the greater Baltimore region are beginning to weigh in.
The agreement, signed July 14 in Vienna, will require Iran to roll back its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions previously imposed by the United States. It calls for Iran to cut two-thirds of its centrifuges from its program and prohibits its use to produce enriched uranium for 10 years. Iran must also reduce its stockpile of enriched uranium by 98 percent and modify its nuclear facilities at Fordow and Arak so that they may only be used for research purposes for the next 15 years.
The agreement has been supported by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has said, according to news reports, that despite recent developments with the United States, Iran will remain allies with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement.
The next step is a 60-day review process by Congress that begins this week. House Speaker John Boehner said on July 22 that Republican members of Congress would “do everything possible” to block the deal.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he has read the agreement but has not yet taken a position.
“There are several issues where we need clarification on how it works,” he said. “What we see in this agreement is very consistent with what we expected.”
Cardin said although his primary focus is on the United States, he acknowledged that the security of Israel is also a concern of his in dealing with Iran.
“The bottom line in this agreement is whether Iran is prevented from developing a nuclear weapons program,” he said.
Cardin said he is not yet sure how the agreement will go over in the Senate but that many of his colleagues are in the process of reading the agreement and similarly have not taken a position. He said it is important not to lose sight of the many human-rights violations Iran has committed.
“There are so many things that they do that are against our interests,” Cardin said. “We know that if we get the right agreement, it does not eliminate other concerns.”
Cardin said that in the coming weeks he expects to hear input from several members of the community. Some groups, such as the Baltimore Jewish Council, contend that while a deal is promising, this particular agreement does not go far enough in guaranteeing a nuclear-weapons-free Iran.
“Ultimately, it is important that the American public is aware that just four days ago, Iranians took to the streets chanting, ‘Down with America’ while burning our flag,” a statement from the BJC said. “The U.S., in their eyes, is the ‘Great Satan,’ and Israel is just the ‘Little Satan.’”
BJC Deputy Executive Director Cailey Locklair Tolle said the group had originally lobbied for several components to an agreement, including an explanation by Iran of military dimensions to its nuclear program and the dismantling of all nuclear components.
“The way the agreement stands right now, we have major concerns,” she said.
Tolle said she has seen estimates that have put the timeframe of Iran’s ability to create a nuclear warhead at around two months, the same amount of time that the congressional review of the agreement is expected to last.
“Right now nothing stops,” she said. “The centrifuges are still spinning. Uranium is still being enriched.”
Tolle added that the BJC had asked for U.S. sanctions against Iran not to be lifted until all parts of the agreement were met.
Tolle said the BJC would have preferred to see an agreement that lasts multiple decades.
“An agreement that’s really only talking about a couple of years or a decade or two, it really needs to be longer than that,” she explained.
Still, Tolle found some things in the agreement to be positive, such as the 24/7 inspections of declared nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency. But even that is a far cry from the 24-day window between the IAEA signaling its desire to inspect undeclared nuclear facilities and it being granted the chance to do so.
The length of the process worries Israel advocates such as David Naftaly, a lobbyist with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee who lives in Columbia.
“We have a convoluted system that is literally more than 24 days because then it goes to the United Nations, where either Russia or China could veto any claim made by the United States,” he said while noting that President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin were “not exactly friends.”
Naftaly, speaking on his own behalf, said he was shocked when he learned the details of the agreement.
“If you were going to build a house, you wouldn’t pay for the entire house to be built before it’s built,” he said, pointing to the speedy relief of economic sanctions called for in the deal.
Naftaly said he felt Obama had taken a detour from the parameters he originally set when he started the negotiations, which included the complete dismantling of the nuclear program and “anytime/ anywhere” inspections.
Naftaly, 68, has worked for AIPAC for 34 years and thinks Iran’s nuclear program is one the most serious threats to world security in the last 40 years.
“They’ve been caught a number of times [of trying to hide things],” he said. “The idea that we would just give Iran $150 billion when we don’t trust them, in my mind, it is lunacy.”
Jay Bernstein, chairman of the Baltimore Zionist District’s advocacy committee, was also critical of the agreement, noting that there is a sunset on the uranium enrichment provisions.
“The idea of wanting to pursue diplomacy is a good one, but that doesn’t mean any deal will work,” he said.
Bernstein said if the agreement required Iran to dismantle all nuclear weapons and be more forthcoming with information, he would be in favor of it. He thinks military action should at least be an option, even as a last resort.
“To me, this is all about how this was negotiated, and it bothers me tremendously that the United States would negotiate a deal and say there’s no other choice,” he said.
Were he in the Senate, said Bernstein, he would vote against the agreement.
Annie Sommer Kaufman, a Baltimore chapter leader for Jewish Voice for Peace, said she is encouraged to see negotiation between the United States and Iran as opposed to military action.
“I think it is a risk, but I think it’s wiser to take this risk than to get into another military invasion/occupation situation like we did in Iraq, which has also led to mass destabilization [and] radicalization,” she said. “It’s hopeful to see a different tack.”
While some Jewish communal organizations remain skeptical of the deal and how it may affect Israel, Kaufman doesn’t think that how’s most American Jews feel.
“American Jews want peace and justice, have some hope in this agreement, have some confidence in their government and don’t always agree with Benjamin Netanyahu,” she said. “And that’s becoming increasingly common, and it’s becoming decreasingly possible for Americans to support or agree with his policies.”
Each Thursday at noon, a group of 10 to 12 Russian seniors meet for News in English, a current events discussion led by Renaissance Adult Medical Center activities director Donna Tatro. This week the first topic was the Iran deal, which provided fodder for the group’s lively, impassioned conversation.
“Everybody knows that Iran helps all enemies of Israel and they always lie about nuclear [capability],” said Lydia Stolkina. “Why would you go to these people and shake their hands [in agreement]? You have to do everything to stop them. I can’t understand — if I know my neighbor is a bandit and he knocks on my door, will I open the door? No, never.”
[pullquote]The idea that we would just give Iran $150 billion when we don’t trust them, in my mind, it is lunacy.[/pullquote]The group consensus was that Iran was not to be trusted on any terms, and a deal that could allow more than 20 days for Iran to prepare for a nuclear plant inspection was not a deal at all and in fact dangerous, not only for Israel, but also for the world.
“This is a bad agreement because Iran will become rich because of the [easing of economic sanctions],” said Tomila Zhovno. “They will sell the oil, get rich, build nuclear plants, they will support Hamas, Hezbollah. They do this now without money, can you imagine what it will be when they get a lot of money from [selling] oil?”
Several local rabbis, such as Rabbi Chai Posner, a member of Beth Tfiloh Congregation’s clergy, have spoken in slightly more measured tones. Posner said he expected an agreement to be reached but hoped it would be different.
“It’s hard to understand how any deal says we’ll let you know when we’re going to come check things out,” he said.
Posner said the United States needs to realize that it is not negotiating with levelheaded people who want peace.
“It’s almost like we’re sort of banking on the fact that 10 years from now Iran will be a different entity and that will be sort of a scary thought,” he said.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff of Har Sinai Congregation described the deal as “kicking the can down the road.” He is worried that Iran’s nuclear capability will not be eliminated and that the financial windfall destined for Iran could be used to fund terrorists intent on attacking Israel. He focusedhis sermon at Shabbat services on June 17 on the agreement.
Rabbi Ariel Fishman, leader of the Jewish young professionals group JHeritage, said he too had a reaction of profound concern about the deal but didn’t think it would necessarily be detrimental.
“Diplomacy’s obviously the first resort,” he said. “I think what people are concerned about is having diplomacy in its strongest form.”
Fishman echoed the assessment of others in saying he still had very little faith in the Iranian government.
“Regardless of whatever the deal outcome is, people are concerned about members of the Iranian government saying ‘Death to America, Death to
Israel,’” he said.
Robert Freedman, a visiting professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University specializing in Middle East history, said he can see both positives and negatives to the deal. Freedman said he read through all 159 pages of the agreement and was encouraged to know that Iran will be held to just 500 centrifuges.
“For the next eight to 10 years, the main avenues for Iran to get a nuclear weapon have been removed,” he said.
The most problematic area of the agreement is the 24-day advance notice required to inspect problematic sites, he said. “The question is, in 24 days, do the Iranians have the capabilities of cleaning everything up?”
Melissa Gerr and Marc Shapiro contributed to this article.