What Would Be Most Likely to Unravel the Iran Nuclear Agreement

by Paul R. Pillar

The agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program—one of the most significant achievements in recent years on behalf of nuclear nonproliferation—deserves ample attention and effort to preserve it. Preserving the accord will require much attention and effort, given that many of those who strove to prevent the agreement from ever being completed or implemented are still trying to kill it. A U.S. presidential election year is a fertile time for the agreement-killing efforts, with several presidential candidates on one side of the political spectrum trying to outdo each other in flaunting their anti-Iranism by promising if they take office to renounce the agreement outright.

The unfortunate ignorance-enhancing effects of so much of the rhetoric that was aimed against the agreement while it was being negotiated—rhetoric that involved raising every possible basis for doubt about the agreement, and seeing what would stick—extend beyond making approval of the accord a much closer call than it should have been. The effects today include mistaken notions of the most likely reasons the agreement might yet fail. Prominent among the mistaken notions is that Iranian decision-makers are determined to build nuclear weapons and that the agreement is part of a deceptive and elaborate multi-decade scheme to do so. The supposed scheme never made internal sense in the first place, and this notion certainly is inconsistent not only with the Iranian decision to negotiate the agreement and to accept all the limitations and scrutiny it involves but also with the alacrity with which Iran already has fulfilled all of the provisions it needed to fulfill before the agreement was formally implemented.

The notion also is inconsistent with the prevailing views in Iran regarding nuclear activities. The Iranian public consistently has strongly supported, as confirmed by a recent poll conducted under the auspices of the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies, a continued nuclear program. The support is for a peaceful program, not nuclear weapons. Iranian policy-makers have had to operate in the political climate that includes this set of views. That climate puts the lie to not only the notion about an Iranian intention to build nuclear weapons but also the notion that there was a “better deal” to be had that involved even more drastic cutbacks of a peaceful nuclear program.

As for the different ways in which the agreement may still die, certainly one of the possibilities is that one of those U.S. presidential candidates gets elected and carries through on the threat to renounce the accord. Doing so would mean acting in a clearly senseless direction that would involve removing all of the special limitations and scrutiny being applied to the Iranian program, inviting the Iranians to reverse the measures they have just taken to limit the program, and telling the Iranians they would no longer have any obligation stopping them from producing as much fissile material as they want, including to a grade that can be used in weapons. Senseless though such a step would be, it is possible that the inflexibility of campaign rhetoric and a felt obligation to wealthy donors who would love to kill the agreement may lead a new president to take it anyway.

The beginnings of another and perhaps more likely route to bringing down the agreement, a route that does not depend on the result of the U.S. presidential election, can be seen in current activity in Congress that is likely to produce new proposed legislation that involves, using various rationales, the re-imposition or new imposition of sanctions on Iran. This is on top of steps the Congress already has taken that involve violating at least the spirit of the nuclear agreement, such as a restriction on visa waivers that picks on Iran (with no good reason, as far as keeping ISIS terrorists out of the United States is concerned) in a way that the Iranians believe, with good reason, may violate the letter of the agreement as well.

Which brings us back to Iranian perspectives, and specifically perspectives on what the U.S. government is doing in light of what was agreed to in the nuclear accord. If the agreement dies, the formal death might be marked by someone in Tehran rather than in Washington declaring a formal renunciation, but it won’t be because of a desire in Iran to build nuclear weapons. It will instead be because of an Iranian conclusion that the United States is not implementing in good faith its side of the bargain, and that the agreement as actually implemented is not being as economically beneficial as most Iranians hoped and expected, and had a right to expect.

Understanding this possible scenario requires attention to several patterns of opinion in Iran, as reflected in the aforementioned poll. They are patterns that ought not to be surprising, although any understanding of them in America has been weakened and confused by the anti-agreement rhetoric. One is strong Iranian suspicion about whether the United States will abide by its obligations—suspicion that is as strong as, and (given goings-on in Congress) at least as well-founded as suspicions in the United States about whether Iran will live up to its side of the agreement. In the poll, 62 percent of Iranians said they were “not at all confident” or “not very confident” that the United States will live up to its obligations under the agreement. This suspicion exists even among many who nonetheless support the agreement itself; 71 percent of Iranian respondents say they either strongly or somewhat approve of the accord.

Another relevant pattern in Iranian opinion, one that Americans again ought to be able to relate to, is the very strong emphasis on economic issues. Going into elections later this month for the Iranian parliament, “it’s the economy, stupid” is at least as applicable a slogan as it ever has been in U.S. elections. Related to this are expectations for economic benefits from the nuclear agreement and associated sanctions relief. Majorities of Iranians polled say they expect that within a year or less of the agreement, the accord will result in “a tangible improvement in people’s economic condition,” “a lot more” foreign investment in Iran, and a significant drop in the unemployment rate.

Some other popular Iranian perceptions about the agreement are matters less of optimism than of misperception, but in either case they increase the potential for disappointment during the coming year leading to a swing of opinion against the agreement. Forty percent of Iranians, for example, mistakenly believe that under the terms of the nuclear agreement, “all U.S. sanctions on Iran are to be lifted eventually,” and 64 percent incorrectly believe that international inspectors “cannot inspect military sites under any conditions.”

Such mistaken beliefs can be blamed on Iranian leaders stretching things a bit in their own rhetoric as they have worked to shore up domestic support for the agreement. A mistake, perhaps, on their part, but an unsurprising one given the existence of significant hardline opposition in Iran that has had to be overcome. The Iranian hardliners may not seek nukes, but they fear the consequences for their own political and economic positions of the sort of opening up of relations with the West that successful implementation of the nuclear accord entails. The polls show that President Rouhani and the moderates, and the nuclear agreement that they have become closely associated with, currently have the upper hand in Iranian politics, but they could quickly become weakened if greater disappointment with how the agreement is being implemented sets it. Such disappointment could lead to Rouhani’s defeat in the Iranian presidential election next year and renewed domination by hardliners throughout the Iranian regime. That would be bad not only for the nuclear agreement but also for other U.S. interests in the Middle East.

The scenario that presents the greatest danger of the nuclear agreement unraveling is thus one in which new sanctions legislation and other Iran-punishing moves by the U.S. Congress cross a line that leads most Iranians to get fed up and to say to heck with it. The incentives that led them to accept the restrictions on their cherished nuclear program would become too indiscernible to make the bargain seem worthwhile any more. And that would bring the deal-killing result that hardliners on our own side have wanted all along.

The lesson in this for those in the United States and especially the U.S. Congress who genuinely want the nuclear agreement to succeed is the following. The temptation may be great, especially in an election year, to use a vote or two to demonstrate anti-Iran toughness and try to mend relations with the political forces who have been most adamantly against the nuclear negotiations. This course may seem attractive if sanctions legislation is placed under some other label such as missiles or human rights, and one might hope to make the politically required gestures without damaging the nuclear agreement. But such a course of action is playing with fire. One must realize that Iranian support for the agreement is currently strong but in another sense fragile. The Iranians signed on to the nuclear accord for the right reasons: a determination that life with more normal relations with the West would be better for Iran than life with nuclear weapons. But for the Iranian in the street, and the Iranian politician who must respond to the street-dweller’s concerns, it doesn’t matter what label is affixed to any U.S. sanctions. Sanctions are fungible in their effects, no matter what the label.

Those in Congress and elsewhere who do not want to kill the agreement can better resist the political pressures to support dangerous legislation by repeating a couple of basic points, in addition to the value and importance of the agreement itself. One is to be blunt in calling agreement-killing legislation what it is and to call out the promoters of such measures regarding their real intentions. The other is to remind everyone, as the history of the nuclear issue itself so clearly demonstrates, that unless economic punishment is linked to some specific requirement that it is plausible Iran could ever accept and could be reached through negotiation, the punishment is only a gesture that achieves nothing and hurts everyone, including ourselves.

This article was first published by the National Interest and was reprinted here with permission. Copyright The National Interest.

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  1. Much of the “anti-Iran” noise from foolish American politicians in fact is a manifestation of their eagerness to serve as stooges of the Israel lobby.

  2. Why doesn’t Russia state that they will provide – or at least protect – Iran with nuclear weapons
    analogous to what the US has done for Israel?

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