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The nuclear accord that major powers reached with Iran last week is a promising first step toward peacefully and permanently stopping the Iranians from attaining nuclear weapons.

It is a result of painstaking diplomacy, made possible by principled American leadership and endorsed by the international community, and it provides a chance to contain Iran's nuclear ambitions while avoiding another costly war in the region.

Congress now must give this agreement a serious look. They should support the agreement — and then work with the administration to ensure that Iran lives up to its promise and, if not, is held to account.

Why should the American people give this accord a chance?

For once, we have an agreement — signed by the Iranians — that limits Iran's ability to research and develop nuclear weapons, reduces its nuclear stockpile by 98 percent, and mandates changes to their nuclear facilities.

Specifically, Iran will substantially reduce the number of centrifuges that can enrich uranium to an amount below what is needed to produce bomb-grade materials. Tehran will also dilute its existing enriched uranium from a concentration level of 20 percent to below 4 percent (90 percent is considered bomb grade).

Today, Iran could produce nuclear bomb-grade material in about 30 days. Under these new, strict limits, even if Iran were to resume its nuclear ambition, it would not be able to achieve it for at least a year or more.

Iran will also stop all uranium enrichment activities at Fordow — a deep-underground facility that we cannot destroy nor have been able to inspect, until now — and use only one nuclear plant, Natanz, for civilian use where centrifuges will be limited to low-grade enrichment with the only centrifuges used being first-generation ones constructed in the 1970s.

At the sole Iranian heavy-water reactor at Arak, all ability to produce bomb-grade plutonium will be removed, and nuclear research and development programs will be curtailed.

Perhaps most significantly, this deal allows the international community to impose meaningful inspections to confirm Iran will not cheat — what President Ronald Reagan called "trust, but verify."

A number of respected nuclear experts, including prominent inspectors with decades of experience with challenging regimes like Iraq and North Korea, are impressed with the inspection safeguards in this agreement.

First, the number of inspectors dedicated to Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency will increase from 50 to about 150.

Second, Iran will allow international inspectors to install the latest, most advanced technology to conduct surveillance and monitor Iranian facilities. Satellite imageries, infrared and radar systems, plus on-the-ground samples and lab tests will all be part of the new detection process.

Third, and perhaps most significant, Iran agreed to let inspectors visit sites and facilities that, in the past, have been suspected to be places of secret nuclear weapons programs. This will give us a more complete picture of Iran's activities and its seriousness in compliance — then and now.

If Iran violates the terms, the agreement was crafted to allow for sanctions to be reinstated. If there is a new location found with suspicious activity, there is a timely process where Western powers dominate the approval process for access to suspicious sites — not Iran.

There are those that have already stated that they will not support this deal. They have the right to challenge the administration. But as leaders, they also have a duty to present an alternative — and, in this case, what is the recourse?

Some suggest we cease negotiations and apply more sanctions to "cripple their economy." That argument fails to take into account that the Iranians were driven to take this deal only because China, Russia, and other nations have worked with us to enforce a comprehensive, international system of sanctions.

If our negotiations ceased and Russia or China walked away, the global consensus would fracture. Are we then willing to pursue war to try to achieve what this agreement does in halting Iran's nuclear program — keeping in mind that U.S. military strikes can delay a nuclear weapon for only a few years?

And if not war, are we prepared to see a nuclear arms race as Saudi Arabia works to procure a nuclear weapon? What is the end game of those who oppose the deal?

This is a dangerous, challenging world, and building an effective national security strategy is hard. It requires patience, thoughtful diplomacy, and accountability over when to use force.

So as we assess this deal, focus on the delicate balance that the accord brings.

If we pursue this, we will improve our security by at least a year, if not at least 15, with renewed sanctions and military action always available if cheating occurs. If not, we will likely see a regional nuclear arms race, or perhaps war with no exit strategy.

Our leaders must make the responsible decision.

— Joe Sestak is a former Navy admiral and U.S. congressman. He is running for U.S. Senate in 2016.

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