National Security & Defense

How to Walk Away from the Iran Talks

(Photo Illustration: NRO)
Get tough by increasing demands and tightening sanctions.

As American negotiators again blow past their self-imposed deadline for a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran, and the Iranians continue to dig in their heels, there are increasing signs that the terms of any final deal could get even worse for American interests. Critics, including Governor Scott Walker (R., Wisc.), have already called for us to “step away from this bad deal.” Many believe Obama is so committed to sealing a deal that the terms don’t really matter. But even this president, with his reputation for irresolution, has stated that he is willing to “walk away.” While there is reason to doubt this statement, given recent developments, it is at least worth asking what walking away would look like.

The answer is not yet clear. The Obama administration has frequently argued that the only alternative to negotiations is war, but this is a canard intended to build support for a deal. Indeed, since Obama has been unwilling to enforce his own redlines in the past, it is unlikely he would reach for the military option now if negotiations break down. Moreover, due to the administration’s single-minded focus on striking an accord, it is unlikely that it has a well-thought-out Plan B.

The obvious default would be to return to the interim deal, the so-called Joint Plan of Action (JPOA). Administration officials have suggested this as the most desirable path forward if negotiations fail. According to these forever-JPOA advocates, although the Iranians would continue to receive modest sanctions relief, an extension would guarantee a nuclear-weapon-free Iran, assuming Tehran continues to comply.

Simply returning to the JPOA, however, would be a serious mistake. It is called an “interim” deal because it was intended to remain in place for only six months, to create time and space for a comprehensive accord. While it has been extended long past its original shelf life, it was never meant to be permanent. And for good reason: Under the JPOA, Iran’s nuclear breakout time (the period needed to assemble one bomb’s worth of weapons-grade uranium) is only two to three months — much too close for comfort. It also permits Iran to continue research and development on advanced centrifuges, which would further reduce its breakout time. Allowing Iran to keep (and potentially reduce) this breakout capability kindles regional instability and weakens global nonproliferation norms. Worse still, like the current deal under negotiation, the interim accord ignores other aspects of Iran’s nuclear development, like warhead design and ballistic missiles, permitting Iran to work on the elements of nuclear weaponization it hasn’t yet mastered.

If this outcome were acceptable, we could simply declare the interim deal final and be done with it. But it is not acceptable, and we should not risk making the temporary permanent through a string of unlimited extensions.

Instead, if we are to continue negotiations, Iran must be incentivized to move towards a more acceptable bargain. It must realize that it cannot drag out negotiations, pocket concessions, and receive one extension after another. The Supreme Leader’s inflexibility reveals that he may very well prefer the status quo over tough compromises.

If Iran cannot immediately accept these terms, we should build support for a new round of crippling sanctions and, if necessary, go it alone, as in the past.

The best possible option, therefore, is to return to the pressure track. We must give Iran a clear choice between a truly good deal and a significantly less pleasant future.

Iran has repeatedly missed its opportunity to seize our gift of a deal, so, rather than making even more concessions — as the administration appears ready to do — we should tighten our demands. Iran can have a peaceful nuclear program and a lifting of international sanctions over time, but only if it completely dismantles its enrichment facilities. Like the vast majority of countries with a peaceful program, Iran can import nuclear fuel from abroad; it need not enrich domestically.

Champions of the current framework deal have argued that a zero-enrichment deal is impossible, but past diplomatic breakthroughs, including the zero-enrichment deal with Libya in 2003 and even the interim nuclear accord with Iran, were unfathomable just months before they were struck.

If Iran cannot immediately accept these terms, we should build support for a new round of crippling sanctions and, if necessary, go it alone, as in the past. Combined with an oil price of just over $50 a barrel, such sanctions could reconstitute the kind of pressure that forced Iran to the table before.

#related#The administration has long warned that new sanctions will cause Iran to pursue a nuclear breakout, but when Congress put sanctions in place between 2010 and 2013, Iran didn’t build weapons. To the contrary, the sanctions drove Iran to negotiate seriously for the first time. Even taking the administration at its word, there is an obvious way to address this concern: set clear redlines and be prepared to enforce them. If Tehran is reckless enough to dash ahead anyway, America can exercise its military option, setting Iran’s program back several years. Rather than choose war with the United States, however, it is much more likely Tehran will do what it takes to avoid conflict, allowing time for pressure to mount, and laying the groundwork for an unquestionably good deal that could win bipartisan support.

We can hope that the Obama administration will follow our advice and press its significant bargaining advantage, but that seems unlikely. Unfortunately, therefore, we might have to wait until January 2017 for stronger American leadership. Either way, this is the only course of action that holds out the possibility of truly resolving the Iranian nuclear crisis.

— Jamil Jaffer is the former chief counsel and senior advisor to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and an adjunct professor of law and director of the Homeland and National Security Law Program at George Mason University School of Law. Matthew Kroenig is associate professor of government at Georgetown University, a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at The Atlantic Council, and a former adviser on Iran policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.


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