Any negotiation can be looked at in two different ways. First, there is the immediate deal and how it is reached. The focus is on who won and who lost, and whether the deal is one-sided or reasonably balanced. The questions are how shrewd were the negotiators, could they have gotten more, or were they hoodwinked into giving up too much? Call this focus “the art of the deal.”
The other approach looks at the long-term consequences of a negotiation. Here the questions are how the agreement fits into each side’s strategy, and how unanticipated political and strategic developments could affect behavior. Most important, a longer-term framework focuses on the residual capability that exists after an agreement. Are organizational structures dismantled, systems taken down, and key staff dispersed?
The biggest mistake in any negotiation is to confuse these two approaches. Rather, the two approaches should be integrated into a balanced overall strategy. In the Iran agreement the focus has been on the art of the deal, that there was no better deal to be had, and that the United States got more in the agreement than many people expected. All of these things may be true—and to a reasonable extent I think that they are. But this isn’t a “good deal” from the long-term point of view. Highlighting the laudable energy put into the agreement by the United States team makes good political sense. After all, the deal has to be sold. As a practical matter putting the focus on the art of the deal is one way to do this. But it doesn’t put the spotlight where it belongs, on the consequences down the road.
There are two such consequences that are worrying. First, the Iran agreement is likely to increase the spread of nuclear weapons, both in Iran and in the Middle East; it doesn’t alter the strategic environment in any way, nor are there other initiatives underway to do this. The other feature of the agreement that is worrying is that it barely touches Iran’s residual capability to get a bomb. All of the knowhow, institutes, and systems to do so remain in place, even if some of them are monitored. A largely unrestrained residual nuclear capability remains in a strategic environment that Iran considers extremely dangerous. This gives Tehran considerable scope for strategic and political moves to get atomic weapons.
Iran’s Residual Capacity to Go Nuclear
The P5+1 agreement with Iran grew out of complex political and military dynamics that began more than twenty years ago. A war against Iran’s neighbor, Iraq, to forcibly remove WMD has to be the most salient development. Here, a major power, the United States built a coalition to invade, occupy, and attempt to transform Iraqi state and society. The purpose of the war had clear implications for Iran. If it had been the success its architects wanted, it would have established a base to politically and militarily undermine the Iranian regime and its nuclear weapons program.
The long history leading up to the current agreement also included an economic siege that caused great harm to the Iranian people. It bore witness to the first cyber attack that destroyed things, in the form of the Stuxnet computer virus. One could add to this list targeted killings of Iran’s scientists and a wide range of covert operations to disrupt its nuclear program.
The point is clear enough. The agreement comes with a long history. Focusing only on the deal itself or the personalities of the negotiators (“they seem to like each other”) misses most of the strategic environment that Iran faces.
The Iran agreement is one development in this long process. It’s like negotiating an end to a long war where each side gets to keep its forces intact. Here, the “war” is the American-led effort to prevent Iran’s atomic bomb. A “surrender” was never accepted by Iran, in the agreement itself or in the behavior that surrounds it. It wasn’t a strategic surrender of its bomb program in the sense that Iran has foresworn nuclear weapons. At best it was a tactical surrender of those parts of it, like old centrifuges, that leaders thought they could shed without too much political loss at home. In sum, Iran’s residual nuclear capability is largely untouched.
Ending the Vietnam War was hardly settled once the United States signed an agreement in Paris with the government of North Vietnam. The agreement didn’t terminate the war—far from it. Rather, the Paris peace accord was an important development that shaped what followed. What was critical then is what’s critical now. North Vietnam wasn’t required to stand down any of its forces. They remained in place. This gave Hanoi freedom of action to exploit the post-Paris peace agreement situation. Hanoi never agreed to abandon its long-term goal of conquering South Vietnam, and that’s exactly what they did over the next two years.
There’s a more general lesson here. Instead of focusing on what is agreed to in a document, we need to focus on the surviving capability that was central to the conflict in the first place. If that capability remains, the details over verification and implementation of any agreement are radically changed, because the side with it has the power to use its residual capability to wreck the deal, or dance around the edges to change it, alter its scope, or any of a number of other strategies.
Iran has only accepted an armistice—a tactical, temporary suspension of some aspects of its nuclear program. It retains a capability to conduct other parts of its atomic program openly. Iran’s nuclear technology system has not been reduced, let alone dismantled. The knowhow, organizational structures, staffs, and systems (for example, advanced centrifuges and missiles) remain essentially intact.
The Middle East Is a Dangerous Place
Let’s put Iran’s residual nuclear program in the Middle East context. Iran’s Sunni rivals, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are organizing against it. These rivals have a lot of money, and they’ve recently crossed a major escalation threshold, using military force in Bahrain and Yemen. Even Israel has joined this coalition in a de facto way.
Nearby, a civil war in Syria has reached brutal levels of violence. Yet it goes on, putting paid to arguments that large-scale war is some kind of obsolete or improbable development. Some 300,000 people killed with all manner of outside states and subnational groups intervening for their own narrow purpose. That the result is apparent stalemate, or that many of the interventions look ill conceived, doesn’t change the fact that Iran can easily see something like this happening to them. Especially for Iran, this is an important fear; Iran suffered large-scale chemical warfare attack in its war with Iraq in the 1980s. I have yet to meet any Iranian who doesn’t believe that this was at least tacitly approved of by the United States and Israel.
Finally, U.S. military capability is not appreciably any less than it was a few years ago. The United States is trying to get out of the area in terms of its deployed forces in theater. But the whole shift to maritime and cyber power in announced American plans points to exerting military force from a distance and from off shore.
Absent some deterrent, the United States can destroy a large part of Iran’s military, opening it up to the kind of catastrophe Syria is now suffering. This really would shut down Iran’s nuclear program if it happened. The point here isn’t to make the case that the Middle East is a dangerous place. Everyone knows that. It’s to make the point that Iran’s residual nuclear program exists in this strategic environment.
Two conclusions follow from this. First, no amount of negotiating skill on the West’s part was going to alter this strategic environment. No personal relations between negotiators could reverse the strategic realities that Iran faces. That members of the two teams went to MIT and swapped gifts for their grandchildren is all very nice. But it doesn’t come close to altering Iran’s dangerous situation.
Second, even if the mullahs were to pass from the scene, Iran’s strategic situation doesn’t change. I would say that even the disestablishment of the Iranian Guards wouldn’t make a difference. The Iranian state needs something to keep the forces of chaos at bay. It has a nuclear capability because it did everything in its power to build it—in the face of an economic siege, cyber attack, targeted killing of its scientists, and the P5+1 negotiations.
Iran isn’t going to give this capability up easily; moreover, no side promise from the United States or others that they will not strong arm Iran if they do give up their nuclear effort is likely to carry much weight in Tehran.
The Bigger Picture of the Second Nuclear Age
Iran has accepted an armistice—a temporary suspension of tactical aspects of its nuclear program. This is what North Korea and Pakistan also did. At various times both countries moderated their nuclear weapon programs, most especially visible signs of them. When Pakistan was collecting billions in U.S. aid in the 1980s and helping fight the war in Afghanistan, it didn’t want to flaunt its nuclear effort by testing a weapon. Nor did it want to overly irritate the United States. When North Korea was under military threat from the United States in the early 1990s, it embraced former President Jimmy Carter’s agreed framework to prevent an attack.
In two major nuclear proliferation cases, arms control was a mask for strategy. Arms control and strategy were complements, not alternatives. I want to emphasize that this isn’t an argument against arms control. Actually it can be very important. But it is an argument against using arms control as a way to shape future history, or to use it to freeze-dry a certain particular era in world order. Expecting an arms control agreement to restore the nuclear world of 1970 or 1991, eras in which the United States had inordinate power, just isn’t likely to work.
The world is going through a major transition, and the Iran deal needs to be seen in this light. There is a repolarization of international relations under way. It’s not just multipolarity replacing the bipolarity of the first nuclear age, the Cold War. Authoritarian regimes Russia and China are lining up against a new coalition of the United States, Europe, Japan, and India.
Nuclear weapons are playing a key role in this realignment, and Iran has to be thinking about what such an arrangement means for it. Charles de Gaulle was once asked why he took France into the nuclear club. His response: “So we get invited to arms control meetings.” Israel, Pakistan, and India—Iran’s immediate neighbors—have the bomb. Tehran’s negotiating opponents, the United States, France, and Britain all have it. And so do Russia and China.
Not only do all of these countries have the bomb; they are also redesigning their nuclear forces for the 21st century. Russia has added forty new modern ICBMs. It has violated several Cold War arms agreements that were the pillars of the global arms control regime. Moreover, Russia is “using” its nuclear forces to test Western defenses, as well as to threaten larger escalations should Ukraine join NATO. China’s nuclear rebuilding is a critical part of its across-the-board modernization, from maritime forces to anti-satellite weapons.
Let’s add to the picture North Korea, which has about twenty nuclear bombs and a missile capacity to deliver them. Pakistan’s arsenal is the fastest growing in the world. And there’s a new class of tactical nuclear weapons. I have no interest in reviewing all this bad news in detail; doing so only obscures certain more fundamental point that Iran has to consider. First, a global arms control regime led by the United States is hardly spreading. In fact, it’s contracting. There are defectors from that regime who go unpunished, big gaps that remain, and even Britain and France have modernized their nuclear forces. A world without nuclear weapons doesn’t appear to be on the horizon, at least in any time enough to matter to Iran.
Looked at this way, the 21st century is a multipolar order that has nuclear weapons more deeply embedded in it than the bipolar order of the 20th century. Any country that gave up the bomb would immediately be at a political disadvantage. They wouldn’t be invited to arms control meetings, where others would design the future order—quite possibly at their expense. It’s one thing to repudiate outside devils as Iran has done for so long. But it’s altogether different to ignore that one’s friends and enemies are meeting to enforce new arms regimes that affect you—when you are not even invited to the meeting.
The Iran agreement is likely to mark a major change in perceptions, but not in the way that many advocates of the deal foresee. The four-decade effort to prevent a second nuclear age is giving way to what could be an even longer era of trying to manage a second nuclear age. For this, strategic thinking and arms control need to be applied; so in an unintended way the Iran agreement may accelerate such an effort. The Iran agreement was announced a few days after the seventieth anniversary of the Trinity nuclear test at Alamogordo, New Mexico, in 1945. I did not see many celebrations to mark this occasion. It was something of a memory the United States wishes to forget. But July 16, 2015, could have been used not to celebrate the test, but to try to fundamentally rethink what nuclear weapons have done, and where we may go in the future. Perhaps the Iran agreement will force this kind of sober reflection, and might in its own unintended way help us rediscover the fundamental purposes of strategy and arms control.