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Iran nuclear deal: 3 Questions with Ambassador Nick Burns

Iran has agreed to halt its nuke program. Big deal. Or is it? Here's what GlobalPost's senior foreign affairs columnist has to say.

and support for the sanctions — if it had not agreed to these first real talks between Teheran and Washington in over three decades.

Critics say the sanctions have been weakened forever now and it lets Iran off the hook. But, the great majority of the really tough sanctions will remain in place including the US and EU financial and oil and gas sanctions. We’ll still have very strong and convincing economic leverage over Iran in the upcoming talks.

Israeli government critics also alleged today that the Geneva deal is too lenient and will fall apart, comparing it to the flawed US nuclear agreements with North Korea in the Bush and Clinton administrations. But, that is mixing apples and oranges. North Korea is a reclusive state with a bizarre leadership willing to isolate its people and economy almost completely from the outside world.

Iran is a completely different country — much more open and transparent, more dependent on commerce with other countries and with a population linked by education, work and inclination to the rest of the Middle East and Europe. In other words, Iran is susceptible to the continued pressure from the draconian sanctions that remain in place. That was never really true of the North Koreans.

The real problem with Israeli and Saudi opposition to the Geneva deal is this — they seem not to favor any negotiations with Iran. Why else would they reject so openly the US commitment to talk to Iran and seek a negotiated way out of this serious danger? It may not be in their interest to negotiate. But, it is clearly in the interest of the United States government and the American people. We will be much better off with a negotiated deal that leaves Iran short of a nuclear weapon if we can get that.

And, as long as the US is involved in negotiations with Iran, it would be untenable for Israel or any other country in the region to use force against Iran.

I think the very public and aggressive Israeli and Saudi criticism of the Obama administration is unwarranted and unwise. The US has been a good and loyal friend to both countries. We deserve better. Both countries are free to disagree, of course, but that is always more effective behind the scenes and in a tone of mutual respect.

There is a certain wisdom in how Obama and Kerry are preceding. After 34 years of separation and divorce from Iran, they are wisely taking the time for diplomacy and to commit to a negotiating process that may or may not succeed in blocking Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons power.

But, this diplomatic path has earned the US much greater credibility with the rest of the world. As we commit to serious negotiations, other countries are much more willing to support our strategy as well as the sanctions track. This may be an important factor if the negotiations fail altogether. Obama would then have the credibility and support (among some states) internationally if the US has to consider the use of force.

So, Obama is right to negotiate with Iran. It is the only real and smart alternative for us now.

He is also fortunate to have a top flight negotiating team at the State Department on Iran. Secretary John Kerry, Deputy Secretary Bill Burns and Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman all deserve great credit for their determined and expert performance at center stage in this drama.

Some say the Geneva deal will now lead to a normalization of America’s relationship with Iran?

It is far too early to know if Geneva will permit the US and Iran to repair the damage of their bitter and acrimonious relationship of the past three decades.

The Geneva deal is an interim, limited agreement designed to give breathing space for the much more difficult negotiations to come.

But it does not resolve the major issue — we still need to stop Iran well short of a nuclear weapon. That will require a much more intrusive final agreement. And Geneva does not also stop Iran’s cynical and objectionable support for the murderous Assad regime in Syria and its support for Hezbollah, Hamas and other terrorist groups.

The negotiations have also not changed the Iranian government’s unacceptable rhetorical attacks against Israel, including outrageous remarks by the Supreme Leader last week.

We are a long way from normalizing our ties with Iran.

The next round of talks over the next few months will be much more difficult, demanding and important. The US and other perm five countries will attempt to convince Iran not just to freeze its nuclear efforts but to dismantle much of its extensive and highly developed nuclear complexes. The Iranian government may very well be much less united in agreeing to such a severe dismemberment of its nuclear program. The US and others will also demand much more widespread inspections of Iran’s far-flung nuclear empire.

In other words, there is a long way to go before the US should even think of normalizing relations with a regime that is a nuclear pariah, funder of terrorism and opponent of the major aims of American strategy in the Middle East.

That is why the US must keep the major sanctions in place, leave the threat of force clearly visible on the negotiating table and pursue a tough policy of continued pressure against the Iranian authorities while we negotiate.

That is very likely the only reason why Iran will elect to continue these very promising but preliminary and incomplete negotiations.