The opponents of the July 14 agreement on Iran’s nuclear program say that it is, for Iran’s neighbors, the United States, and most of the rest of the world, a bad deal. The Obama Administration says that it is the best deal available. Both are correct, although each assertion requires a qualification: What makes the accord an unsatisfactory one for all countries except Iran itself is not any of the details set down in the 159-page document that the Vienna negotiations produced, flawed and worrisome though some of them are. The basic problem, rather, is the international approval of a full-scale Iranian program of uranium enrichment, which the United States conceded twenty months earlier, in the interim agreement of November 2013, on which the Vienna talks were based. As for the second assertion, the terms of the July 14 accord surely are the best available to this particular administration, given that it has never wielded a credible threat to use force against Iran, which is the necessary condition for keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of the Iranian mullahs.
Conceding, in November 2013, what the United States had previously insisted it would never permit—an Iranian infrastructure for enriching uranium—has had three powerfully negative consequences. First and most obviously, because uranium enrichment is the process for producing not only fuel for nuclear power reactors but also for the explosive material in nuclear weapons, it has allowed a regime that is by the account of the American State Department the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, that is underwriting Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s murderous assault on the people of that country, that is directly or indirectly at war with virtually every country in the Middle East with which the United States has or tries to have friendly relations, and that has made a central and repeatedly proclaimed part of its international agenda the destruction of the state of Israel, to come perilously close to acquiring the world’s most destructive weapon.
Second, the November 2013 accord abandoned a four-decade-long American and international policy of prohibiting the spread of enrichment technology even to friendly, democratic countries. In fact, since the 1970s the global non-proliferation regime—the agreements, understandings, organizations, and policies designed to restrict the spread of nuclear armaments—has had three main pillars: the Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968, which prohibits signatory countries that do not already have them from getting nuclear weapons; the even more important series of American security guarantees that have successfully persuaded countries capable of getting the bomb, such as Germany and Japan, that they do not need it because the American nuclear arsenal adequately protects them; and the various measures designed to limit the distribution of the technology for enriching uranium and reprocessing plutonium (another route to the bomb). Without public or Congressional debate, and as the result of the secret negotiations that yielded the November 2013 framework, the Obama Administration abandoned the third pillar. As a result, it will henceforth be extremely difficult to prevent other countries, at first in the Middle East but ultimately elsewhere, particularly in East Asia, from equipping themselves with the capacity for enrichment.
The third dire consequence of permitting Iran to have a full-scale enrichment infrastructure is that this places an impossible burden on the program of international inspections to ensure compliance with the terms of the Vienna agreement. Inspections can work as confidence-building measures, when the country being inspected has no enrichment facilities, does not intend to build them, and is eager for the rest of the world to know this. When, as in the case of Iran, none of these conditions obtains, when inspection is an adversarial rather than a cooperative exercise, it becomes a game of hide and seek in which the hiders have an overwhelming advantage. They control the country in question and the inspectors’ access to it. For this reason much of the debate about the details of the July 14 accord is, in a sense, beside the point. Whatever the agreement says, the Iranian regime will decide what international inspectors will see and when they will see it; and “the regime” in this case means not the English speakers with advanced degrees from Western universities with whom the American and European negotiators have spent long hours in luxury hotels in Europe but rather the mullahs, terrorists, and thugs whose chief contact with the United States has been devising ways to kill American soldiers in Iraq. Having achieved the capacity to enrich uranium, Iran now enjoys, to borrow a metaphor from the world of sports, an overwhelming home-field advantage.
In this way the nuclear negotiations with Iran resemble the other tension-filled international talks of this summer, the European Union’s negotiations with Greece to avoid that country’s formal bankruptcy and keep it within the continent’s common currency, the euro. In both cases the negotiations took place far too late to obtain a good result. Such a result might have been possible five or ten years earlier, before Greece had become encumbered with tens of billions of dollars of unpayable debt and suffered a disastrous economic decline; likewise a good outcome might have been possible before Iran had come so close to acquiring nuclear weapons. In both cases, moreover, the agreement reached does not solve the problem but merely postpones a reckoning with it. For having acquired the means to fabricate its own explosive material—the most difficult step in the weapon-making process—Iran now has what it needs to acquire nuclear weapons. What might prevent it from doing so?
The Vienna agreement effectively removes the current disincentive, economic sanctions; and whatever the Obama Administration says about being able to make these sanctions “snap back” in the event of Iranian violations of that agreement, it is prudent to assume that, once lifted, they will not be re-imposed in any serious way.
Other countries have refrained from obtaining nuclear weapons because, among other reasons, they have anticipated that their neighbors would get their own nuclear weapons in response, thus leaving them no better off strategically—and perhaps even more vulnerable to their neighbors than they were before. India, arguably, has had this experience: When it crossed the nuclear-weapon threshold it prompted Pakistan to do the same, erasing India’s considerable non-nuclear military advantage over its neighbor. Perhaps the Iranian government will make a similar calculation, although, having gone as far as it already has along the path to the bomb, it is probably too late to discourage its Middle Eastern neighbors, most of whom are its adversaries, from striving to match it.
Alternatively, the current Iranian regime may fall and be replaced by a more democratic, less bellicose one. (President Obama has floated the idea that the current regime might modify its behavior in ways congenial to the West. This is unlikely in the extreme. A change of behavior will require a change of regime.) Given the choice, it seems clear, the majority of Iranians would not decide to be governed by the corrupt theocracy that now holds power in Tehran. But of course they do not have that choice, and whatever their shortcomings the ruling mullahs and militias have shown themselves determined and capable enough to ensure, by force, that they do not get it. The Obama Administration has sometimes suggested that the flood of money into Iran that the end of sanctions will unleash will weaken the regime by encouraging the forces within the country that are opposed to it. This is a curious position. Governments generally become vulnerable when they fail in one way or another. Relief from sanctions will count, for the masters of the Islamic Republic, as a considerable success.
There is one more disincentive to an Iranian bomb, the most potent of all, indeed the only fully reliable one: the credible threat of the use of force by the United States against the Iranian nuclear program. That option—bombing Iran’s enrichment and other bomb-related facilities—has been, is now, and will continue to be at the heart of the issue of Iranian nuclear weapons.
Barack Obama has said that the alternative to the agreement his negotiators reached in Vienna is war. That is, of course, not true: in foreign policy, since the time of the ancient Greeks 25 centuries ago, force and diplomacy have complemented each other. There is, however, a grain of truth in what the President said. All negotiations on vital issues between adversaries unfold in the shadow of war. Each side has to calculate two things: the likely outcome of a war; and the willingness of the other side to wage one. There can be no doubt that in an armed conflict with Iran the United States would prevail. Specifically, the United States could destroy the Iranian nuclear weapons program with a campaign of aerial bombardment and would not have to deploy a single American soldier on Iranian territory to do so. Whatever retaliatory measures the Islamic Republic undertook, such a war would not repeat the American experience in Iraq.
If military capacity were all that mattered, Iran would never have dared to build the full-scale uranium enrichment capacity that it now possesses. Intentions matter as well, however, and here the Iranian leaders have calculated—correctly—that the American government would not use its military trump card to halt Iran’s progress toward nuclear weapons. As President, Barack Obama repeatedly asserted that, where that program was concerned “all options”—including, by inference, the use of force—were on the table, but the mullahs rightly surmised that this was a bluff and, by continuing to build the enrichment program that Obama had vowed not to tolerate, they called it. This is the sense in which the Obama Administration’s description of the deal as the best one available is correct. Given that it was negotiating from a position of self-imposed weakness, it is difficult to see how it could have obtained more favorable terms than the ones embedded in the July 14 agreement.
The option to use force against the Iranian nuclear program was apparently also not on the table in the administration of the far less conflict-averse George W. Bush. The first, illicit, Iranian uranium-enrichment facility became known, after all, in 2002. While the Bush Administration did ultimately take the lead in imposing economic sanctions on Iran, at that point and thereafter it was preoccupied with Iran’s neighbor. To the extent that this prevented forceful action to stop the Iranian march to the bomb, that failure may be counted as yet another casualty of America’s war in Iraq.
All of this is to say that, at this very late date, keeping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, with all the catastrophic consequences that that would have, depends on a credible threat to use American military force. This is true even in the highly unlikely event that the process of inspections works as the Obama Administration claims it will. For if and when inspections in these circumstances detect violations, or the Iranian regime simply decides to withdraw from the agreement, as its thirty-sixth paragraph permits, what will the United States do? Nuclear nonproliferation in the Middle East ultimately depends, that is, not on the details of the Vienna agreement but on the familiar Cold-War policy of deterrence.
If, as he clearly hopes, President Obama manages to leave office without Iran having taken the final steps to the bomb, the responsibility for conducting a policy of effective deterrence will fall on his successor. In the meantime, however, Congress can make the task of doing so somewhat easier. By passing a resolution of disapproval of the agreement, even if they cannot override the promised presidential veto, the House and the Senate can signal their support for more robust opposition to an Iranian bomb than the current administration has mounted. They can supplement such a message with a resolution authorizing the use of military force in the event of further Iranian movement toward obtaining the bomb. Legislation of this kind would strengthen the hand of the next chief executive, whoever he or she turns out to be.
Of course, deterrence resides ultimately in the eye of the beholder, that is, of the party being—it is hoped—deterred; and in this case that party, the person with ultimate sway over Iran’s nuclear program, is the country’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The political fate of the Middle East, and perhaps a great deal more, now therefore rests on the opaque perceptions and calculations of an aging, provincial, autocratic, fiercely anti-Semitic, anti-Western, and anti-American Persian cleric. Whatever else may be said of the position in which the July 14 agreement and all that went before it have placed the United States, one thing is beyond dispute: that position is not a comfortable one.