Should the Next President Kill an Iran Deal?

by Ali Gharib

So far, the 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls fall, with the possible exception of Rand Paul, into one camp on Iran policy. They’re all against the developing nuclear deal. Some, like Scott Walker, have even already vowed to abandon the deal on “day one” if elected.

Last week, this preemptive rejectionism got a boost from a trio of policy scholars: the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments fellow Eric Edelman, National Institute for Public Policy scholar Robert Joseph (both former George W. Bush administration officials), and the Council on Foreign Relations’ Ray Takeyh. (Edelman and Takeyh both serve on the neoconservative group JINSA‘s Iran Task Force.) Writing in Politico, they open by noting that Republican hopefuls have “insisted on re-evaluating the agreement, if not jettisoning it all together,” and go on:

Secretary of State John Kerry has rejected such claims, maintaining that future presidents are unlikely to “turn around and just nullify it.”

Yet the history of arms control demonstrates that controversial agreements are usually reviewed by incoming administrations. On at least three recent occasions, a new president ultimately annulled a landmark agreement that he determined was not serving the interests of the United States or was being violated by an adversary it was meant to restrain[.]

Well, yes. presidents can do many things—and they have. An Iran nuclear accord, like other arms control agreements, will be no exception. The relevant policy question, then, is less what can the next president do, but rather what should she do.

This larger question goes unaddressed in the hawkish trio’s piece—I’ll get directly at it myself in a moment—but it’s worth glancing at their three examples. They serve as cautionary tales of what not to do and, in at least one case, hardly serve the point the scholars are trying to make.

Flawed Case Studies

The three cases Edelman, Joseph, and Takeyh cite are:

  • Ronald Reagan’s renouncing, in 1986, the SALT II treaty’s approach
  • George W. Bush abandoning the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty in December 2001
  • George W. Bush’s decision to stop delivering on U.S. obligations in the Agreed Framework with North Korea, leading to its final collapse

No one—not least John Kerry, in the remarks cited by the trio—is arguing that these two presidents were not within their rights to make these decisions. What’s so curious is that the Politico piece fails to look critically at the cases to see if, in hindsight, those decisions were sound.

Jimmy Carter inked the SALT II deal but withdrew it from consideration for ratification after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Both sides, however, implemented its tenets. Then, the scholars noted in Politico, “The Reagan Administration’s review concluded that the agreement was ‘fatally flawed’ but provisionally decided to abide by the unratified treaty.” By 1986, after SALT II’s official expiration, Reagan renounced the SALT framing altogether, as the trio notes (“Reagan determined that the wisest course was to abandon SALT II despite the fact that the agreement was long-standing and had been negotiated by both his Republican and Democratic predecessors”). But even before 1986, Reagan had already set in motion what would become the START I treaty. Those negotiations came in fits and starts—mostly fits, resulting in the arms race of the 1980s that saw a dramatic increase in the number of nuclear weapons in the world—and by 1991 an agreement was reached that drastically reduced the world’s nuclear weapons stockpiles.

In the case of the ABM treaty, history’s judgments, so far, are much less ambiguous. “With the Cold War over, and with new nuclear threats from less stable and less predictable adversaries, the Bush administration considered it essential that the U.S. deploy effective missile defenses to deter and defend against the growing threat,” argue Edelman, Joseph, and Takeyh. “Once more, it was determined that America’s interests would be best served by abrogating an agreement despite dire warnings that withdrawal would spark an arms race which, in fact, did not occur.”

Well yes, that determination was made and enacted. But the fact that an arms race didn’t occur doesn’t obviate the apparent uselessness of withdrawing from the ABM treaty. Nothing was gained for American security thanks to this move. A decade-and-a-half later, we have no working ballistic missile shield, and “the emergence of new missile and nuclear threats from rogue states” like North Korea never materialized as credible challenges to American security. All we got was more a bill of more than $100 billion for a failed system and tensions with the Russians over the issue.

Then there’s the Agreed Framework with North Korea. The strange thing about citing this case is that it’s a poor analogy for unilaterally discarding an arms agreement. The North Korean analogy falls short because the result of the Framework’s collapse hardly serves as a good precedent for unilaterally withdrawing from a deal. North Korea, of course, tested a bomb four years after the U.S. withdrew. “I guess that showed ol’ Kim Jong Il,” wrote the arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis recently. Lewis’s take is instructive; it argues—persuasively, I think, but with room for disagreement—that the nuke test forced the Bush administration back to the table for the Six Party Talks where it basically got “a much watered-down version of the Agreed Framework.”

Should the Next President Ditch an Iran Deal?

Edelman, Joseph, and Takeyh argue something of a moot point: that new presidential administrations can and have abrogated old arms agreements. This much is obviously true, as their three examples clearly show. But those same examples also present a more muddied picture of whether those presidents should have ditched the deals. A more insightful perspective would have addressed these questions. For a couple of them, there are good arguments on both sides. The most notable omissions, though, didn’t come from the past examples, but from the issue at hand today: a prospective Iran deal.

In another Politico piece several months ago, the former Defense, congressional, and State Department official Ilan Goldenberg, now with the Center for a New American Security, outlined some of the pitfalls of the U.S. violating a deal. Goldenberg’s analysis addressed what was, at the time of his piece, the chief concern from the American side: congressional action to kill a deal after it had been signed. However, those likely consequences would be the same if a future president killed a deal. Goldenberg’s short piece is worth reviewing in full, but let’s start with just one of the consequences: that the sanctions regime would unravel in the face of an American abrogation of an inked deal.

There are plausible scenarios in which the U.S. might not shoulder the full blame for the negotiations collapsing. I recently wrote about Yishai Schwartz’s argument, which is basically to take a quiet, harder (though still reasonable) line for these next few months and making it difficult for Iran to take a deal. But, as the hawkish trio shows with their past examples, this is a far cry from a president announcing that he’s quitting a pact that’s already been agreed to. In that case, Goldenberg is surely right that Iran’s major trading partners would blame the U.S. and leave their compliance with sanctions behind: “The sanctions regime would begin to unravel,” he wrote.

In this scenario, there is no getting a mythical “better deal”—the rallying cry of Benjamin Netanyahu and those opposing an accord—just the utter collapse of diplomacy. And Goldenberg offers a slew of other potential and likely consequences of that: “Iran would remove the constraints on its nuclear program”; a likely “escalation of the covert war between Israel and Iran”; “undercut[ting] Iran’s pragmatic President Hassan Rouhani”; and “profound implications for America’s standing in the world.”

On that last score, consider this sentence from Edelman, Joseph, and Takeyh: A nuke deal “will be will be applauded by America’s rivals and adversaries, such as Russia and China, yet disclaimed by its closest allies such as Israel and the Gulf Arab states.” That’s a nice dichotomy, but it fails to capture the real international politics around the Iran deal. China and Russia, first of all, aren’t our only negotiating partners in the so-called P5+1 group. That cohort includes Germany, France, and the U.K., whom, if one was not blinkered by ideology, might be recognize as our actual “closest allies.”

That leads to one other point cribbed from Jeffrey Lewis’s Agreed Framework piece worth mentioning here. The überhawk Bush administration official John Bolton wrote that when North Korea’s uranium enrichment went public, it became “the hammer I had been looking for to shatter the Agreed Framework.” As Lewis noted, “The phrasing—’had been looking for’—is telling.” It’s a stark rendering of not American national security interests, but rather of ideological and political considerations. Reagan was a hardline anti-Soviet warrior; Bush campaigned on a ballistic missile shield, causing arms makers to salivate; and Bolton’s remark reveals the ideological preconceptions of a set of hawks in Washington averse to any and all diplomacy with rivals, a set that is, as it happens, always looking for hammers to smash things. One can’t help but wonder how much of the opposition to an Iran deal, especially among GOP presidential hopefuls, is itself ideological or political posturing that if acted upon could end up, in history’s judgment, harming American national security interests.

Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.



  1. @bob
    “what’s the difference between Hitler and the Ayatollahs?”
    Maybe no huge armies invading other countries? No Jews rounded up to be killed in concentration camps? No aerial bombing of London? — Do those qualify as differences?

  2. Bob, sir, please kindly refrain from all activities that require the use of a dozen or more neurons. The funny papers will provide you with more than enough amusement and information.

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