ASG senior advisor Philip Gordon discusses the next steps to the historic U.S.- Iran nuclear deal
Obama's New Dance With Iran
As a historic nuclear deal moves forward, here's how to get the next step right.
By Philip Gordon and Richard Nephew
Just six months after the historic Iran nuclear agreement was finalized, the first major step in its implementation is about to be taken: Barring any last-minute glitches, the International Atomic Energy Agency will likely certify in the coming days that Iran has faithfully implemented all the “nuclear steps” required of it in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Those steps have included the mothballing of some 14,000 centrifuges, the export of more than 10 tons of enriched uranium, the wholesale redesign of a plutonium-producing heavy-water reactor, and the setting up of an intrusive inspections regime. That Iran has met these obligations far more quickly than anticipated — most expectations were that they could not be completed until this spring — demonstrates how keen the Iranian leadership was to see the end of international economic sanctions, most of which will now be removed. It has also made the world a safer place, and provides an opportunity to reduce some of the tensions currently tearing the Middle East apart.
For all the legitimate concerns and questions about the Iran deal — the implications of sanctions relief and the long-term risks after certain restrictions expire — it is worth pausing to appreciate the significance of what has just taken place. When the United States initiated the secret nuclear talks in early 2013, Iran was essentially on the threshold of a nuclear weapons capability. It had mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle, some 20,000 installed centrifuges, enough low enriched uranium to make numerous nuclear bombs, a stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium that reduced the timeline for doing so, an advancing centrifuge research and development program, a hardened, underground uranium enrichment facility, and a near-complete heavy water reactor capable of producing material for one to two bombs per year. Experts assessed that with this infrastructure Iran could produce enough material for a nuclear weapon in as little as two months.
As a result of the nuclear deal, all of these components of the program have now been significantly scaled back or removed, and an unprecedented inspections regime is in place to ensure compliance Now it would now take Iran at least a year to produce enough nuclear material for a bomb — the longest “breakout timeline” that has been in place since before President Barack Obama took office. This gives the United States and its international partners ample time to respond to any suspected attempt to fashion a bomb — by reimposing sanctions or, if necessary, the use of force.
It is also worth pausing to ask where we would be today in the absence of this deal. While critics prefer to compare the results of the JCPOA with some imaginary “better deal,” the most likely scenario is that without the JCPOA we would today be facing an Iran that had steadily progressed toward a nuclear weapons capability in the same patient, gradual way it has for decades. It would probably not have made some risky dash for a bomb, but it would have continued to gradually develop its nuclear capabilities, including the completion of the Arak heavy-water reactor that Israeli officials told us when we were still in government was their primary near-term concern. The former core of that reactor is now filled with concrete.
Without the deal, Obama would today be faced with the choice of using military force to set back the program for a couple of years — at a time of already enormous turmoil in the Middle East — or effectively acquiescing to its further development, leaving an even greater problem for his successor. We should not forget that when the George W. Bush administration, not known for softness on Iran, faced that same choice as the Iranian program grew from 2005-08, it opted for the latter course.
Just last week, North Korea provided a useful reminder of where proliferation cases can end up in the absence of a nuclear deal, even when tough rhetoric and harsh international sanctions are applied: with a nuclear-weapons state under unpredictable leadership testing new models of nuclear weapons and leaving the international community with no good options for how to respond.
None of this is to say that the nuclear deal somehow “solves” the Iran problem, and even proponents should admit that in some ways it makes that problem worse. An Iran that gains access to more than $50 billion of its frozen assets abroad and starts to increase oil sales, even at depressed prices, will be an Iran that can devote more resources to nefarious activities in the region, including support for terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, or dictators such as Syria’s Bashar Assad. But the right response to this reality is not to scrap the nuclear deal, as proposed by most Republican presidential candidates, but to enforce it to ensure that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon, to use all the tools at our disposal to confront and contain Iran in the region, and to use the valuable time bought by the nuclear deal to explore whether a better relationship with Iran is possible.
Our next steps are crucial. Critics of the deal, including many in Congress, will try to undermine it, either by taking away the president’s authority to waive sanctions, as proposed in a bill put forward just this week, or by deliberately re-introducing nuclear sanctions under some unrelated pretext, with the goal of provoking the Iranians to stop implementing the deal. Either approach would isolate the United States from nearly all of its international partners — undermining significantly the actual impact of the proposed sanctions — and leave it with no viable alternative to halt the Iranian program.
At the same time, proponents of the deal, including some in the administration, may be tempted avoid all conflict with Iran, fearing that a confrontation would threaten this major achievement. This would also be a mistake. We can and must stand up to Iran and reap the benefits of the deal at the same time.
The first requirement is meticulous enforcement of the deal. Iran is unlikely to engage in blatant violations, knowing that doing so would result in the reimposition of international sanctions — which the deal allows the United States to do even if other United Nations Security Council members disagree. Iran might well, however, seek to test the limits of the deal with creeping, incremental violations, such as by conducting more advanced research and development than the deal allows or by refusing to fully cooperate with demands of inspectors. The United States and its partners will need to respond to those tests early and effectively, lest Tehran conclude that they are too afraid of provoking a crisis to punish minor violations. There are plenty of ways to respond to such violations in ways that would help ensure Iran’s full compliance but stop well short of collapsing the entire deal. One is to delay approvals for dual-use items — those that can be used for nonnuclear or nuclear purposes alike — to Iran in a newly established “procurement channel” over which the United States has significant control. Another would be to reimpose partial sanctions on Iran for partial noncompliance. And another is simply to use the threat of reimposed financial and/or oil sanctions, which would have an enormous deterrent effect on potential investment in Iran, something the Iranians know all too well.
Second, we should do more to demonstrate that agreement to the nuclear deal does not mean turning a blind eye to Iran’s support for terrorism or interference in the internal affairs of neighbors, and doesn’t mark the initiation of a new “alliance.” Even after the deal is implemented, the United States will not have diplomatic relations with Iran, will not allow its citizens and firms to invest in or — for the most part — trade with Iran, and will apply a long list of non-nuclear sanctions to Iran, while it bases troops in and sells billions of dollars of advanced weapons to its partners in the region. In that sense, the perception that Washington has somehow “tilted” toward Iran in the region is wildly exaggerated, but it is a perception that exists and the United States needs to do more to counter it. The delay in new sanctions for Iran’s illegal ballistic missile tests last month, even after they had been announced, only fueled the perception that the desire for good relations with Iran and nervousness about the nuclear deal will prevent the administration from standing up to Iran.
So the administration needs to demonstrate to Congress, its partners in the region, and most of all the Iranians, that it will continue to stand by its friends in the region and will not refrain from taking tough measures against Iran when they are required. Further military, missile-defense and intelligence cooperation with its Gulf partners, and a new, long-term military assistance agreement with Israel, will go some way to stemming the intense concerns in the region about a post-nuclear deal Iran. So too would imposing the sanctions now on hold, when whatever technical delays were involved are resolved.
Finally, with the nuclear risk drastically reduced for at least 10 to 15 years, the United States should cautiously explore whether it can use that period to develop a more pragmatic, constructive relationship with Iran and to resolve some of the conflicts that are raging throughout the region. The nuclear deal, as difficult as it was to negotiate, demonstrated that it is in fact possible for the United States and others to speak directly and to reach an agreement that includes painful concessions for both sides. Just a few years ago, U.S. diplomats could not even be seen talking to Iranian counterparts, but now they speak directly, and sometimes usefully, as seen in the quick resolution of the January 12 incident when two U.S. ships accidentally strayed into Iranian waters. Instead of refusing to talk to Iran, it is worth exploring, in full transparency and cooperation with our partners in the region, whether new channels can be useful in reducing the conflicts in places like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, where whether we like it or not, Iran has a role.
Iranian hard-liners and security services are already feeling threatened by the deal and may prove able to thwart all progress. But the 2013 election of President Hassan Rouhani and the strong public support for the nuclear deal in Iran were signs that the Iranian public is frustrated with the current regime and are desperate for economic progress and integration with the world. If the near-term downside of lifting sanctions on Iran is that it gives the regime and its hard-liners access to new assets, the longer-term upside is that it will open up Iran’s economy and society to outside influences and give the Iranian public an even greater incentive to reap the benefits of peace with its neighbors.
By the time the deal’s restrictions on nuclear enrichment expire in 10-15 years, the current supreme leader will almost certainly be gone and a new generation of Iranians will be in positions of power. Perhaps that will not lead to fundamental change, and at that point the U.S. president and others will have to decide how to deal with an unreformed, threatening Iran. But if there is even a chance that the nuclear deal not only buys time on the nuclear issue but accelerates openness and reform in Iran, why not explore it?
Philip Gordon was Special Assistant to the President and White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf Region from 2013-15. He is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and senior adviser at Albright Stonebridge.
Richard Nephew was the lead sanctions expert for the U.S. team negotiating with Iran from 2013-15 and before that served as Director for Iran on the National Security Council staff. He is now a Fellow at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University.