by Henry Johnson
A new report by the Iran Project elaborates on the basic reasons for supporting the comprehensive nuclear deal being negotiated between Iran and the U.S. The report, authored by distinguished former diplomats including Ambassador Thomas Pickering and Paul Pillar (whose National Interest blog posts LobeLog frequently features), demonstrates why Iran’s current leadership is unlikely to violate a final deal. The report uses as its premise the assertion by the U.S. intelligence community that Iran has not decided whether to acquire nuclear weapons. This question, and the logic that follows, is central to understanding the disputes over whether President Obama is pursuing the correct policy vis-à-vis Iran.
Perhaps the chief concern among detractors of the president’s diplomacy is that it does not go far enough in slashing and constraining Iran’s enrichment program. Many of the deal’s opponents, for whom Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks most forcefully, share the belief that the U.S. objective should be to eliminate Iran’s enrichment capability altogether. This all-or-nothing objective flows from the premise that Iran is actually deceiving the U.S. and is committed to obtaining at least a threshold weapons capability. Iran’s putative agreement to a deal, they worry, is nothing but a ploy to unravel the sanctions regime before bolstering its enrichment program and pinning all the blame on the U.S. In order to rationalize Obama’s failure to recognize this grandiose subterfuge, some commentators and political leaders have attempted to paint Iranians as untrustworthy and even dishonorable. Senator Tom Cotton, for example, libeled Iran’s foreign minister as a coward and a draft evader. Senator Lindsey Graham called Iranians liars and cheaters, and Netanyahu regularly draws parallels between present-day Iran and genocidal threats to the Jewish people throughout history.
The Iran Project’s new report argues that these concerns are unfounded. The U.S. government’s highest intelligence authority on questions regarding the military intentions of foreign nations has and still does contradict the belief that Iran harbors a secret long-term plan to acquire nuclear weapons. The Director of National Intelligence (DNI) has repeatedly testified in open session before Congress that Iran halted its weapons program in 2003 and has not made a decision to acquire nuclear weapons. Aside from the DNI’s “high-confidence” assessment, the report also outlines the difficulty that Iran would indefinitely face in trying to pursue a “sneak-out”—the use of undeclared facilities to enrich enough uranium for one bomb. This includes the contention that “Iran is the most watched country in the world,” and that “the unprecedented extension of inspections…will make it even more difficult for Iran to conceal a new facility.” The authors also point out that the U.S. intelligence community “has concluded that the IAEA would detect in a timely manner any direct violation of the agreement” and that it itself is capable of detecting undeclared facilities, “as it has done the two previous times Iran failed to declare in a timely manner its nuclear-related sites.”
The assumption that Iran is pursuing a bomb and a nuclear accord at the same time is simply illogical. Why would a country that is the closest it has ever been to a weapons capability forfeit its best “breakout” option, unless it did not ultimately want a bomb? Prior to the Joint Plan of Action, Iran had enjoyed the option of enriching enough uranium for one bomb in less than three months. A final deal will effectively push this window of time to at least one year. Iran presumably could have rejected substantive talks from the outset and in so doing inched closer toward a weapons capability. It is not in Iran’s interest to do this now, and it will be less in its interest to do so in the future, when the inspections regime is tougher and the length of its breakout time greater. The same basic cost-benefit analysis—weighing the risk of U.S. or Israeli strikes and isolation from Western economies—will apply 15 years from now, except that Iran would then be precluded, due to a permanent inspections regime, from a sneak-out option. As the report’s authors put it, “One must question why a country that could have developed a nuclear weapon any time over the last decade would now agree to restraints with unprecedented verification and then cheat.”
Even if a new geopolitical fact were to persuade Iran’s leadership into considering anew pathways to the bomb, the weight and seriousness of this fact would have to supersede several political interests in Tehran. Elites in the Islamic Republic have for the most part reached a consensus to support President Rouhani’s handling of the nuclear file. A successful deal would reinvigorate the economy and act as a pressure valve for the simmering discontent that boiled over once not too long ago. As noted in the report, “In recent months the IRGC and other institutional conservatives in Iran have refrained from public attacks on the agreement, and recently given it support, suggesting that they are falling in line with Khamenei, who appears increasingly supportive.” A major breach, furthermore, would “destroy the large investment Iran’s leaders have committed politically and economically in reaching the agreement in the first place.” It would “entail re-imposition of U.S. sanctions with a consequent impact on third states dealing or trading with Iran…even if the full international sanctions regime is not restored.” These consequences would enrage some key voter demographics, not only for triggering economic fallout, but also for returning Iran to a detested pariah status. The consequences would doom President Rouhani’s reelection campaign and possibly lead to a repeat of the 2009 protests and the prospect of popular revolt.
If Iran did wish to acquire nuclear weapons, it would not agree to the parameters set by the Obama administration—and no policy other than war could commit it to a zero-enrichment capability, according to the report. Fortunately, though not for the sake of clarity, international politics is scarcely characterized by such extremes. States usually prefer making a bargain that ends in peace to imposing their will by war. The environments in which diplomatic bargains can grow and ripen, however, are prone to outside interference, both from within the state and without. Internal political opponents may prize the scuttling of their adversary’s legacy over progress in the name of international peace. Foreign interlopers may, in pursuit of narrow self-interests, attempt to goad a superpower into taking actions that they themselves balk at. So far, Obama has deftly fended off these outside pressures. The survival of his foreign policy legacy will be decided by the strategy he devises to placate restless allies and protect his deal from whatever hawkish tendencies the next U.S. administration might exhibit.
Photo: DNI James Clapper