The fate of the nuclear deal with Iran appears to be in some jeopardy.
Key democrats in Congress – most notably New York Senator Chuck Schumer – have recently announced that they would vote to reject the agreement.
Passage of the agreement is far from a done deal, with more than two dozen Senate Democrats remaining in the uncertain column.
Opponents regard the deal with disdain, characterizing the accord to curtail Iran’s nuclear program as counterproductive, naïve and reminiscent of England’s appeasement of Nazi Germany.
Critics of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) are right to be skeptical of Iran’s commitment to multilateral accords.
The International Atomic Energy Agency reported on several occasions – including in 2005, 2008 and 2011 – that Iran had violated important articles of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. But even given Iran’s lackluster record, I’d argue that a move by Congress to block the accord would result in a less favorable security outcome for the US and its allies.
The importance of the deal
The benefits of the deal for Iran are substantial.
They include extensive sanctions relief that would allow Iran to resume oil export sales and gain access to frozen assets, estimated at US$55 billion. That would give the regime an enormous incentive to abide by the terms of the accord. In return for sanctions relief, Tehran has agreed to relinquish 98% of its supply of enriched uranium, limit its centrifuge operations and restrict enrichment to 3.67%. These actions would significantly lengthen Iran’s “breakout period,” or the time needed to create a nuclear weapon.
Additionally, the JCPOA also includes a carefully crafted verification protocol that permits intrusive and technically savvy inspections of known and suspected nuclear facilities.
Critics wanted to coerce Iran into complete capitulation so that it would cease all nuclear activities in perpetuity and allow “anywhere, anytime inspections.” Barring that, they advocated starving the regime so that it would be unable to afford nuclear, militant or terrorist activities.
But this sort of result was unfeasible. Short of Iran actually testing a nuclear device, the P5+1 – the US, Germany, China, UK, Russia and France – were never willing to support a marked increase in economic pressure.
What if the deal fails?
A blocked deal would lead to several alarming consequences.
A no-deal Iran would have 33,000 pounds of enriched uranium instead of just 660 pounds. It would be able to produce enough fuel for a nuclear weapon in a few weeks instead of a full year.
If Tehran does aspire to build a nuclear weapon, as critics maintain, the dissolution of the deal would, in fact, facilitate their goal. The regime has publicly stated that it would speed up enrichment if the deal was blocked. Iran would also possess additional paths to a bomb without the deal’s prohibition on Iran reprocessing its plutonium.
What is more, the collapse of the plan would scuttle the enhanced transparency that the international community would have gained about Iran’s nuclear program as a result of inspections.
In the wake of a blocked deal, the solidarity underpinning the present multilateral, UN-backed sanctions program would dissipate. That would leave the US standing alone or with few allies. The historical record shows that without multilateral sanctions, the US lacks leverage to make Iran capitulate.
Additionally, China and Russia are likely to benefit by exploiting American obstinacy as an excuse to strike trade deals with Iran. That would bolster China’s economic and Russian’s strategic positions.
But the most dangerous diplomatic setback would be the effect a botched deal could have on America’s transatlantic alliances. America’s allies strongly back the deal. Blocking the JCPOA would quite likely result in a deep rift between the United States and its NATO allies, crippling support for future collaboration.
And then there is the question of how the sinking of the pact would complicate nonproliferation objectives far beyond the Middle East. America’s perceived unwillingness to negotiate on nuclear diplomacy would further marginalize any pro-diplomacy voices inside North Korea, arguably the more significant nuclear threat. Blocking the accord would ossify Pyongyang’s distrust of the US and give greater momentum to North Korea’s nuclear buildup.
Minding valid concerns
Critics of the deal emphasize the danger presented by the windfall of unfrozen money Tehran will acquire. They predict that money will flow to Iran’s military and its investment in militant foreign activities, including sponsorship of terrorist organizations.
They’re not wrong – funding will probably flow in this direction. Still, the danger presented by this for the US and its regional allies is far less than the threat posed by the robust nuclear program that will likely emerge in the deal’s absence.
Moreover, the amount of funds freed up by the end of sanctions that will be devoted to military ends is probably much less than critics suggest.
Iran has pressing economic matters it must deal with immediately. The regime will have to invest between $100 billion and $200 billion in its oil and gas industries simply to reestablish past production levels. To satisfy the rising expectations of the public regarding the economic bounty it expects to materialize after the deal, the government will also have to invest in the domestic economy.
If the bulk of the unfrozen money does indeed flow to the military, the US and its allies might even benefit from a better financed Iranian military, which could use the new funds to step up its military operations against the Islamic State.
Still, simply signing a deal with Iran does not automatically make this episode of diplomacy a success. The devil is indeed in the details – implementation and verification.
The international community must prove its resolve to Iran. Iran must be shown that it will be held accountable and that automatic “snapback” provisions of the deal will be reimposed in response to a significant and unresolved violation.
The deal indeed fails to achieve all that the US could have hoped for. Still, the accord offers a credible path to a peaceful resolution of the crisis, and therefore it would be far too risky to turn it down.