The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, better known as the Iran nuclear deal, will likely be the most controversial foreign policy issue of the 2016 general election campaign for President of the United States. President Obama considers the deal to be among his foremost foreign policy accomplishments and leading contenders for the Democratic Party’s nomination have publicly backed the deal. In stark contrast, all the major Republican presidential candidates have opposed the accord and several have vowed to scrap it if elected. Florida Senator Marco Rubio, for example, has promised “on my first day in office . . . I am going to cancel this ridiculous deal [Obama] has struck with Iran.” Texas Senator Ted Cruz has echoed this position stating, “You better believe it. If I am elected President, on the very first day in office I will rip to shreds this catastrophic Iranian nuclear deal.”
Many others, including within the Republican Party, believe that this tough talk is merely campaign rhetoric, and that it would be unrealistic to suggest that this agreement, negotiated with our closest international partners and consecrated in a United Nations Security Council Resolution, can be easily or even ever undone. Moreover, now that the deal has formally gone into effect, many believe either that the value of the agreement has already been demonstrated, or at least that it is now too established to overturn in the absence of undeniable demonstrations of Iranian bad faith.
On both points, however, they are mistaken. The Iran nuclear deal undermines many of America’s most important national security objectives and will not stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The next President of the United States, therefore, should work to unwind it. But he or she must do so carefully, with a clear sense of the desired end state and a realistic plan to achieve it. By following the strategy outlined below, the next U.S. President can responsibly unwind the Iran deal and work toward a better agreement, one that prevents, not merely delays, Iran from building the bomb. And even if a better agreement proves unattainable, on balance U.S. interests are better served by the absence of an agreement than by the continuation of the one we have.
Why Undo the Deal
The primary purpose of the P5+1/Iran nuclear negotiations was to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and, while the current deal seems certain to buy some time (but not necessarily 10-15 years of it), it also creates two new pathways by which Iran can go nuclear. First, by allowing Iran to keep a significant enrichment program and providing sanctions relief upfront, the deal is structured in a way that will tempt Iran to cheat. It can pocket the sanctions relief and then resume its march to the bomb whenever it decides to invoke paragraph 36’s open-ended right to exit the agreement. Second, the deal contains sunset clauses, which means that Iran can simply be patient, wait for the nuclear restrictions to expire over the next 15 years, and then build up its nuclear program until its breakout time shrinks, in the words of Obama, “almost down to zero.” Consistent with the terms of the deal, at that point it can build an enrichment program so large and sophisticated that no outside power could ever realistically intervene to stop it from assembling nuclear weapons.
Proponents of the deal argue that if these scenarios come to pass we can simply reapply pressure, but this overlooks the fact that our means of doing so are also eroded by the terms of the deal. As other countries increase trade ties with Iran, they will be less willing to impose new sanctions. Moreover, as Iran’s economy recovers, it will become less vulnerable to economic pressure. If Iran makes a concerted push for the bomb, therefore, it is unrealistic to expect multilateral “snap back” sanctions to stop it in sufficient time.
This leaves only the military option, which, admittedly, the Obama Administration has not formally taken off the table against unpredictable future contingencies. The President has stated clearly that any U.S. President in the future would have to consider using force to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear arsenal, if it came to that. However, the military option is also rendered less effective the longer the deal remains in place. By providing Iran with over $100 billion in upfront sanctions relief and lifting the UN embargoes on Iranian trade in advanced conventional weapons and ballistic missiles, the deal will enable Iran to improve its defenses and its retaliatory capabilities. Even if Iran simply waits for the nuclear restrictions to expire, it will be extremely difficult for any U.S. Administration to build domestic and international support for military action against an Iran that has abided by the terms of an agreement designed in Washington for over a decade. Iran could follow the terms of this deal almost to the letter, and the deal would still not achieve its stated objective of stopping Iran from proliferating.
There are other problems, as well. By granting Iran, a country that has routinely defied international law and its own past nonproliferation commitments under the NPT, a de facto right to enrich, the deal sets a dangerous precedent. Indeed, other countries in the Middle East and Asia are already claiming that if Iran can enrich uranium, then they can, too. Governments want to know why, when the U.S. government signs civil nuclear deals with a country—the UAE comes to mind as a recent example—it insists that its counterpart foreswear enrichment . . . after effectively blessing Iran’s right to enrich. One can hardly blame them for asking.
Beyond the realm of nonproliferation, by providing Iran with an influx of cash and making Washington more hesitant to push back against Iran’s activities elsewhere for fear of upsetting the agreement, the deal has already strengthened Iran’s hand in the region and unsettled traditional U.S. regional partners. This has added fuel to ongoing regional proxy wars, as in Yemen, where Saudi policy takes the form of self-help in the perceived vacuum of U.S. engagement. This perception has also obstructed the U.S. ability to effectively combat ISIS.
Many supporters of the deal argue that it is a step toward a new, more normalized relationship with Iran that could alter Iranian politics and make Tehran a more responsible international actor. But it is possible that Iran’s reigning theocracy will use the deal to strengthen its rule and to step up its destabilizing activities in the region. Authoritarian regimes can be stubbornly durable, as for example in Cuba, where U.S. policy has also probably aided rather than undermined an authoritarian status quo. For this reason, perhaps, the Obama Administration was unwilling to explicitly sell the deal as part of a broader rapprochement, but within its own counsels it is likely that such a prospect played a role in its assessments. It is of course possible that a nuclear pact will fundamentally transform Iranian politics and policies, but no one can know that from the present vantage point. It therefore seems a risky bet on which to justify an agreement of this magnitude.
In sum, while reasonable people disagree on the value of the Iran deal, there is a case to be made that it weakens, rather than strengthens, U.S. and global security. Most importantly, several people who might be sworn in as President next January find the argument persuasive. What, then, is the alternative to the present deal?
A Framework for a Better Deal
The first step to unwinding the Iran nuclear deal in a responsible manner is to establish a clear objective. That objective cannot be merely to punish Iran. The goal must be to reach a better deal, one that actually prevents Iran from building nuclear weapons.
The Obama Administration has consistently argued that the deal’s critics will accept nothing less than Iran’s complete capitulation, but this is not true. A deal based on the principles that have guided U.S. nuclear nonproliferation policy for decades, and a framework that has been acceptable to many other countries with truly peaceful nuclear programs, can in no way be fairly characterized as a punishment.
For years, the United States has allowed, and even encouraged, countries to operate nuclear reactors for research or energy purposes, but it simultaneously worked to restrict the spread of nuclear fuel-making capabilities: uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing. Once a country has the ability to make its own fuel for nuclear reactors it also has the ability to make fuel for nuclear weapons.
The vast majority of countries with peaceful nuclear programs, such as Mexico, South Korea, and the aforementioned United Arab Emirates, do not enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium. Rather, they have nuclear fuel for their reactors provided to them by other nuclear states. This is the preferred arrangement for a peaceful nuclear program and one that Washington has promoted since the 1953 Atoms for Peace initiative, including with its own allies. There is no good reason, therefore, to make an exception for Iran, a U.S. adversary that has continually failed to live up to its international commitments.
Iran should be allowed to retain a truly peaceful nuclear program. While the details must be worked out in negotiations, this means that Iran may be allowed in principle to maintain nuclear reactors for research and the production of energy, such as the Tehran Research Reactor and its light-water reactors at Bushehr. There is no compelling reason, however, for Iran to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium. Iran must therefore completely dismantle its sensitive nuclear facilities—those that can be used for the production of fuel for nuclear weapons. That would include its uranium enrichment facilities at Natanz and Qom. Furthermore, in addition to dismantling current facilities, Iran must forswear future enrichment and reprocessing.
This is a reasonable compromise that, unlike the current deal, prevents Iran from building nuclear weapons forever. Indeed, eliminating Iran’s enrichment capability was the Administration’s original goal of negotiations with Iran, one that was enshrined in multiple UNSC resolutions, before it was abandoned in a desperate search for an accord.
Critics will argue that Iran would never agree to such limitations, having already concluded an agreement without them. But how can they be sure? Few predicted that Muamar Qaddafi would give up Libya’s enrichment program just days before he did so in 2003. And several years ago many serious analysts did not believe that the current Iran nuclear deal was in the cards. Occasionally, international diplomacy makes the seemingly impossible possible. But for that to happen in this case, we must first set the appropriate conditions.
Returning International Pressure on Iran
It is highly unlikely that Tehran would quickly agree to these renegotiated terms. If it is unwilling to do so, the United States must work to return international pressure against Iran. Time and time again—from its agreement to a ceasefire in the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, to its suspension of enrichment following the U.S. invasion of Iraq (due to fears that it might be next), to its acceptance of restrictions on its nuclear program in the face of tough international sanctions—we have seen that Iran only responds to pressure.
Over the past decade, the U.S. government has orchestrated against Iran the most intensive international sanctions regime in history. This economic pressure brought Iran to the negotiating table, but we erred by letting up too soon. To compel Iran to make the concessions necessary for a good deal, Washington must work to re-impose crippling international sanctions. To be sure, this will be much more difficult now that the deal has already gone into effect, but, if it is a foremost foreign policy priority of the next President, it can be done.
Indeed, the process actually began several months ago when the Republican candidates announced their intention to tear up the Iran deal. As a result, many international business interests are reluctant to make major investments in Iran, knowing that, depending on the outcome of the American presidential election, there is a good chance that international sanctions against Iran may return in a few short months. As Rubio said, “this should have a chilling effect for any business thinking about investing in Iran. . . . This deal will not outlive this Administration, and international businesses that move into Iran in the coming months need to know they will lose everything.” Republican candidates should reinforce this message. By making it clear that Obama’s deal with Iran may last no longer than 12 months, they can deter the international business community from rushing into Iran.
Next, on day one of his or her term, the new President can reinstate by executive order any sanctions that were suspended by the Obama Administration. He or she can also put an immediate halt to the unfreezing of any still-frozen Iranian assets. Finally, he or she can cease the use of executive waiver authority in order to effectively re-instate past Congressional sanctions on Iran.
The next and most difficult step will be working with allies and partners to reinstate international and multilateral sanctions against Iran. Critics of this approach have argued that the rest of the world will not support continued sanctions against Iran, but this is incorrect. It takes the United States, a global superpower, to lead on issues of nuclear nonproliferation.1 Other, smaller nations understandably focus on their narrower, often economic, interests. This was true in 2003 when the United States began its unsuccessful, years-long struggle to win international approval for UNSC sanctions against Iran. But Washington demonstrated persistent leadership across two administrations and was able eventually to win international consensus and erect the toughest sanctions regime in history.
Now, some international business interests are eager to rush back into Iran, but only because the White House has in effect announced that Iran is once again open for business. To be sure, it will require substantial political capital, but if a new President were to reverse course and present a new plan to permanently resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis through sanctions, the world’s other key governments will again reluctantly follow. In part, they will do so for the same reason they signed on in the first place: America’s so-called secondary sanctions threaten to penalize foreign firms that do business in Iran.
In my travels to many foreign capitals in Europe and Asia in the past year, I have been told repeatedly that if the U.S. government were to demand new sanctions on Iran, these governments would again grudgingly comply. U.S. sanctions force them to choose between doing business with Iran and doing business with the United States, and that is really no choice at all. It is perhaps not widely known, but in building the sanctions regime that brought Iran to the table, the U.S. approach was to target major companies first, not governments. Most of the relevant governments were not happy with this approach, but in the end they found it irresistible. They came around because their own private sectors did not want to lose access to the much larger U.S. market and beseeched them to do so.
To be sure, a reconstituted sanctions regime may not be as comprehensive as that which existed in 2013—at least not immediately—but it could be enough to seriously damage Iran’s economy. By reinstating sanctions, Washington can once again attempt to convince Iran’s leaders that they can have a healthy economy or (if we don’t preempt it with military force) a nuclear weapons capability, but not both.
All Options Are Still on the Table
This approach raises the risk that Iran will use the re-imposition of sanctions as a pretext for expanding its nuclear program. Indeed, some movement in this direction may be inevitable, but so long as Iran stops short of crossing red lines, the risk is manageable. To deter Iran from dashing to a nuclear weapons breakout as we wait for the economic pressure to build, Washington must keep all options to the table—and seem credible as it does so.
The United States should establish clear red lines, affirming that it is U.S. policy to prevent Iran from producing sufficient fissile material for even a single nuclear weapon, and that the United States will use all means necessary, including military force, to prevent this. The new President should declare this to be U.S. policy and ask Congress to formally endorse it. Of course, Iran may make a reckless dash for a nuclear weapon anyway and, if so, Washington must be fully prepared to use force to stop it. In all likelihood, however, Iran’s leaders will be deterred. These stated red lines will box Iran in, allowing time for the economic pressure to mount.
At the end of the day, this plan will give Iran’s leaders a simple choice. They can stubbornly insist on maintaining an enrichment program, but as long as they do so, they will meet with credible military threats, their economy will be decimated by international sanctions, and their country will remain an international pariah. In the short- to medium-term, Iran’s leaders may choose this course. If so, we will find ourselves in another enduring stalemate. The lack of immediate resolution may make some people uncomfortable, but it is preferable to the status quo, in which Iran still possesses a dangerous enrichment capability that now comes with the international community’s stamp of approval, while the United States gives up viable options for rolling back that capability.
A return to the pressure track will remind the international community that Iran’s enrichment program is in fact still a problem, and re-enlist its help in actively working toward eliminating that program. Over time, therefore, Iran’s leaders will grow increasingly inclined to accept the new deal Washington is prepared to offer. As the economic pressure builds again, Iran’s leaders will return to the negotiating table looking for relief. And they will know that in order to receive it, they must take one simple step: dismantle their sensitive nuclear infrastructure. Only when this is accomplished will the international community have achieved its longstanding goal of preventing, not merely delaying, Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.
1Matthew Kroenig, “Force or Friendship: Explaining Great Power Nonproliferation Policy,” Security Studies (2014), pp. 1-32.