Hampton Roads' members of Congress are digesting President Obama's new nuclear pact with Iran, and largely withholding final judgment while harboring worries about the long-negotiated deal.
They have two months to make up their minds, and the president has promised a hard sell between now and planned congressional votes.
A trio of Virginia-based experts said Thursday that the deal is probably good one for the U.S., especially since there aren't really other options but war to keep Iran from building a nuclear arsenal.
"There isn't a rational argument, a realistic, rational, factual argument against this agreement," said Lawrence Wilkerson, who was former Secretary of State Colin Powell's chief of staff from 2002 to 2005.
Wilkerson has three decades experience in military and foreign policy, including stints at the Naval and Marine war colleges. He teaches now at William & Mary.
"There's angst," Wilkerson said. "There's concern... I give (critics) that. But I don't give them the right to say, 'Kill the agreement and go to war.'"
Spokespeople for Virginia's two U.S. senators said their bosses need time to study the 100-plus page agreement that came out of talks in Vienna Tuesday. The Washington Post, which has a running count of support in the Senate, listed U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine Thursday as "leaning yes but hesitant" based on past comments. It had U.S. Sen. Mark Warner "purely undecided."
Warner, D-VA, said in a statement Thursday that the deal is "too important to rush to judgment." Warner said he was "under no illusions about the nature of Iran's clerical regime and its malign influence in the Middle East," and what would come if this deal proves unenforceable.
"An Iran that continues on its path toward a nuclear weapon, or another potential military conflict in a volatile part of the world," he said.
Warner also noted that economic sanctions from other countries involved in these negotiations – China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom – couldn't be counted on if the U.S. had walked away from this deal.
University of Virginia Professor Melvyn Leffler, who has written extensively about U.S. foreign relations with some focus on the Bush and Obama years, made the same point Thursday: This wasn't just about America's willingness to hold its own sanctions over Iran's head and force a better deal.
"It's totally speculative when critics say, 'You could have had a better deal," Leffler said. "What are the indications that you could have had a better deal?"
Kaine, D-VA, issued brief statement when the deal was announced, saying he plans to "analyze this deal in the days and weeks ahead."
Hampton Roads' Republican congressmen expressed deep concerns with the deal, but stopped short of dismissing it.
U.S. Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Virginia Beach, said he'd study the deal with these questions in mind: Does it make American and Israel safer? Are the inspection provisions strong enough? Does it prevent Iran from producing a nuclear weapon?
"My initial assessment, based on preliminary reports, is that the proposed agreement fails on all four counts," Rigell said in a statement.
U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Westmoreland, said he fears the agreement lacks needed safeguards, given Iran's history of obfuscation.
"A more peaceful and tolerant Iran is certainly in the best interest of the United States and Israel," Wittman said in a statement. "But simply wishing peace and tolerance upon a nation shown to lack a desire for both does not suddenly make it trustworthy, and the U.S. must remain wary of Iran's intentions."
U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Chesapeake, said he continues "to have grave concerns" about the deals impact.
"As well as doubts that an increasingly aggressive Iran … can or should be trusted to uphold their end of the agreement," Forbes said in a statement.
Christopher Newport University Professor Nathan Busch, who has written or edited four books on nuclear proliferation, said there have been at least three instances when the Iranian government reconfigured or destroyed a facility to avoid inspection. He said the structure of this deal "could allow them plenty of time to conceal evidence."
Distrust between Iran and the U.S. spans decades, as do nuclear ties. The U.S. helped orchestrate a coup there in the 1950s. It later helped Iranians begin their nuclear program, Wilkerson said.
"We have been plugged into this proposition for a long time," he said.
U.S. Rep. Robert C. "Bobby" Scott, D-Newport News, said his review will focus not on "what could or should have been in the deal, but how the deal compares to the alternative of no deal at all."
"It is important to note that if there is no deal, there is no right for the international community to inspect any of the nuclear sites in Iran, and the only alternative to ensure Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon is war," Scott said in his statement. "And even war is not a meaningful strategy unless we intend to occupy Iran indefinitely."
Wilkerson backed that analysis. Bombs alone will not prevent a nuclear Iran, but drive its programs, literally, deeper underground, he said.
As for full scale war, Iran has some 77 million people. In square miles, it's larger than Iraq and Afghanistan combined, with more than enough room left for California and Virginia. The terrain, Wilkerson said, "almost killed Alexander the Great."
Busch, who is working now on a book titled "The Politics of Weapon Inspections," said the deal looks to be better than no deal at all, but there are pros and cons.
It requires the removal of roughly two-thirds of the centrifuges used to produce nuclear material at key installations, Busch said, but doesn't require that those centrifuges be destroyed.
The accord includes concrete restrictions on nuclear enrichment, and international inspectors may be able to detect violations, Busch said. But there is also "significant wiggle room" when it comes to verification, he said.
All in all, the deal would likely increase the "breakout time" – the amount of time it would take Iran to gear back up and create a nuclear weapon, Busch said. But many of the agreements restrictions fade after 10 years, and arms embargoes for ballistic missiles and other weapons erode much sooner than that.
After 10 years Iran will presumably have made major missile improvements, and be "in very good position" to push forward with a nuclear weapons program.
But "no treaty," U.Va.'s Leffler said, "is going to last forever."
"No one knows what will happen in 10 or 15 years," Leffler said.
Fain can be reached by phone at 757-525-1759.