Editor’s Note: The following essay originally appeared at AEIdeas, a public-policy blog published by the American Enterprise Institute. It is reprinted here with permission.
The Problem with Iran Is Much Bigger Than Just the Nuclear Threat
The first point I want to make is that we are way too focused on this aspect of Iran policy. I am not arguing the Iranian nuclear threat or the JCPOA are unimportant. But we have made them the only thing we debate or consider when we talk about U.S. policy toward Iran. That is a significant misrepresentation of the nature of the Iranian threat and the role that Iran’s nuclear program plays in it. This over-focus has already badly distorted our policy toward Iran and the Middle East under Obama and Trump, threatening our allies and our interests.
As I have discussed at great length elsewhere, the likelihood that Iran would use a nuclear weapon once it acquired one is extremely low. Iran’s leadership has repeatedly demonstrated that it understands deterrence, respects the military power of the United States, and is willing to back down whenever it realizes it has gone too far and runs the risk of an American military response. Likewise, the Iranians are very cognizant of Israeli military power and go out of their way to avoid provoking the Jewish state. Moreover, Israelis know this. Before the nuclear deal was signed, poll after poll found that only 19–22 percent of Israelis thought that Iran would attack them with a nuclear weapon if it ever got one, which is why only 19 percent of Israelis favored an Israeli preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear program. Finally, it is worth noting that Pakistan and North Korea have proven themselves to be far more dangerous actors than Iran, yet they have had nuclear weapons for over 30 and over 20 years, respectively, and neither has ever used them.
The dangers of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon are more subtle. Of greatest importance, Iran might feel emboldened to become even more aggressive in pursuing its designs in the Middle East if it believed that a nuclear arsenal protected it from conventional retaliation. This is what Pakistan seemed to believe for many years, and what got it into the 1999 Kargil and 2008 Mumbai Crises with India. In addition, the Saudis (and possibly the Emiratis) would feel threatened by an Iranian nuclear weapon and might choose to pursue one of their own. More nuclear-armed states in the Middle East cannot possibly be a positive development given their troubled internal and external relations.
These are the real threats from the Iranian nuclear program, the threats that the JCPOA was meant to address. They are important and dangerous, but they are not apocalyptic and there are ways to address them all.
The real question is whether the JCPOA serves the interests of the strategy. If it does, it is worth preserving. If it doesn’t, it isn’t.
Moreover, what they make clear is that the greatest danger from an Iranian nuclear arsenal is how it might exacerbate Iran’s regional activities, activities that are already incredibly destabilizing to the region and threatening to American interests right now, without an Iranian nuclear arsenal. Consequently, it is critical that we deal with these problems now, on their own terms, rather than endlessly debating a treaty meant to address only one potential aspect of that problem.
Yet every conversation that starts with how to deal with Iran’s threatening behavior seems to immediately get hijacked by the question of whether the JCPOA is worth preserving. The Trump administration proclaimed that it was adopting a strategy of pushing back on Iran, but so far the only element of that strategy it has been willing to discuss is what it plans to do about the JCPOA. Indeed, by announcing it will end covert assistance to the Syrian opposition and by refusing to provide significant economic assistance to Iraq, the White House has established policies that run entirely contrary to what is needed to push back on Iran. The Obama administration, too, seemed wholly uninterested in Iran except for its nuclear program and appeared to regard the JCPOA as the answer to all of the problems from Iran, if not all of the problems in the Middle East. The media and Congress, too, are obsessed with the JCPOA, largely unwilling or unable to discuss other aspects of U.S. policy toward Iran, even though the media have done an admirable job detailing the extent of Iran’s threatening activities throughout the Middle East.
Any strategy toward Iran must include an approach toward the nuclear issue and the JCPOA, but that can only be part of the strategy. The goal of the strategy has to be broader than just preserving or tearing up the JCPOA. In fact, how the strategy handles the JCPOA needs to be based on what the strategy is supposed to accomplish, not the other way around. And starting to fashion a policy toward Iran by starting from a like or dislike of the JCPOA is utterly wrongheaded.
The real question is whether the JCPOA serves the interests of the strategy. If it does, it is worth preserving. If it doesn’t, it isn’t. Yet even then, it is critical to figure out how to handle the Iranian nuclear program if it isn’t going to be through the JCPOA, and how the United States can shift to that different approach.
The Pros and Cons of the JCPOA
As far as the JCPOA goes, it is not a terrific agreement, but it serves some important purposes and it would be a mistake to shunt it aside without a high expectation that it could be replaced with something better.
In its favor, the JCPOA has put the Iranian nuclear program on ice. The International Atomic Energy Agency has repeatedly confirmed that Iran is abiding by the terms of the agreement and that all violations have so far been minor and unintentional. Iran’s uranium-enrichment program has been dramatically curtailed. It is also important to note that Iran’s efforts to develop the military weapon part of a nuclear bomb always lagged well behind its efforts to enrich uranium, and the JCPOA appears to have caused Iran to slow or suspend its clandestine militarization program as well.
I am struck by the fact that the Mujahideen-e Khalq, an unsavory Iranian opposition group but one that has demonstrated an ability to collect accurate intelligence on the Iranian regime at times, argued as recently as October of last year that Tehran’s militarization program was fully active, but no governments — including the Trump administration — have echoed their claims. Finally, the JCPOA represents a global consensus that Iran should not be allowed to have nuclear weapons, and a willingness to inflict significant harm on Iran to prevent it from achieving the capability. That’s not nothing.
In fact, all of that is very meaningful. However, it may turn out to be short-lived.
There are two very big shortcomings to the JCPOA. The first is that its most stringent restrictions on Iranian uranium enrichment restriction end in seven–twelve years. Even then, it will still be illegal and contrary to the JCPOA for Iran to build a nuclear weapon. However, if Iran is able to start largescale enrichment again, it could get to the point where its stockpile is so close to being bomb-ready that it could make a sudden dash toward a nuclear weapon and possibly build one before anyone could do anything about it.
There are powerful countervailing reasons not to throw out the JCPOA, even if it isn’t as good as we hoped for (and arguably could have gotten).
That’s why critics claim the JCPOA provides a legal path for Iran to achieve a nuclear weapon. It’s not technically correct (since Iran’s acquiring a nuclear weapon will always be illegal), but it may prove practically correct in that these provisions of the JCPOA could allow Iran to get dangerously close to having a weapon while still staying within the bounds of the agreement.
The second big problem with the JCPOA is that it has a lengthy and convoluted process for addressing international inspections of Iranian facilities whenever Iran does not want to let the IAEA have a look. So far, there have been zero problems in this area, but critics fear that at some point in the future Iran might decide to start secretly creeping toward a nuclear capability and will use these procedures to keep the world from realizing what it is up to.
These are real problems, not lightly dismissed, especially the short “sunset clauses” that will allow Iran to resume large-scale enrichment so soon. These problems point to the fact that the JCPOA only ever should have been seen as a temporary stop-gap, a way of buying time for a more permanent solution.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration seems to have believed the JCPOA was going to be the gateway to a full rapprochement with Iran, which would somehow result in Iran’s ending its nuclear program. That is why they were willing to agree to such a short window in which Iran’s enrichment was tightly circumscribed. It’s not just that this thinking was unlikely at the time; it has now been proven wrong, and there is no reason to expect a rapprochement any time soon.
It is not even clear that a rapprochement would cause the Iranians to discontinue their nuclear program. But now that we cannot count on a rapprochement, the other (excessive) concessions the U.S. made in the JCPOA make it a lot harder to keep a lid on the Iranian nuclear program over the long term without the U.S. violating the agreement. I assume that’s what President Trump means whenever he calls it the worst deal the U.S. has ever signed.
All that said, there are powerful countervailing reasons not to throw out the JCPOA, even if it isn’t as good as we hoped for (and arguably could have gotten). The first and most important of these is that we don’t have a good way to get something better if we throw this away. And this deal is definitely better than nothing.
Second, our fear is that in seven–twelve years Iran will resume its march toward having the enriched uranium for one or more nuclear weapons. Its past determination to do so is worrying to say the least, but it is not a foregone conclusion that it will do so. Again, the JCPOA does technically prevent Iran from acquiring a weapon and in seven–twelve years the Iranians may conclude they do not need a nuclear arsenal because no one is threatening to invade them and overturn their regime. I cannot prove it, but I am of the opinion that a critical reason that Iran was willing to agree to the JCPOA is that it concluded the Obama administration had no intention of attacking it. After 30 years working on Iran within the U.S. government and without, I am convinced that if Iran believed the United States intended to invade and overthrow the clerical regime, Tehran would have suffered any degree of sanctions to acquire a nuclear deterrent, exactly as North Korea did.
Moreover, by the time the sunset clauses begin to come into effect, the Iranian regime may have concluded that pursuing a nuclear weapon in the future would be counterproductive because it could push the international community to resume the kind of crippling economic sanctions that forced Tehran to agree to the JCPOA in the first place. In fact, if Iranian public opinion continues to turn against the regime for its economic mismanagement and corruption, as seems likely, the regime may conclude that wasting money on a nuclear program and exacerbating their own economic situation by incurring harsh new sanctions would increase the risk of a popular revolt that overthrows the regime.
History has demonstrated that nuclear weapons cannot save an unpopular regime from internal revolution. And a smart American policy would be aimed at laying the groundwork to begin supporting Iranian dissidents, secessionists, and would-be revolutionaries at the first sign that Iran was planning to break out of the remaining prohibitions of the JCPOA.
Finally, we need to recognize that the rest of the world likes the JCPOA a lot more than we do. For most of the international community, it is the solution to the Iranian nuclear program, a problem that they never really wanted to address anyway. As I have argued repeatedly throughout these essays, international support is absolutely critical for U.S. policy toward Iran. That is certainly true for any pushback strategy, mine or somebody else’s. It is equally true for a more defensive containment approach, or any strategy other than giving in to Iran and walking away from the Middle East altogether.
In every instance, the United States will be far more able to accomplish its objectives toward Iran if it has strong international support. Yet because the JCPOA is so popular abroad, walking away from it is likely to infuriate other nations who will see the United States, not Iran, as the problem. It gets even worse if the United States then starts trying to enforce its secondary sanctions (waived as part of our adherence to the JCPOA, and which President Trump is now threatening to reinstate). That will mean enforcing sanctions not against Iran, but against our allies and trade partners in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere. That is not going to make them want to support our wider strategy against Iran. It is very likely to convince them to oppose whatever we do until we agree to stop hurting them with our sanctions.
The JCPOA and Pushback
From my perspective, all of this argues for a three-step approach toward the JCPOA within the context of an overarching American strategy of pushing back on Iran.
First, the United States should remain committed to the JCPOA, but ensure that it is strictly enforced. For now, it is useful and the best that we have. The downsides of alienating allies we need for other aspects of pushback and jeopardizing the one thing that keeps the Iranian nuclear program on ice outweigh the upside of trying to get a better deal, especially since it is highly unlikely the U.S. can get a better deal without the help of those same allies.
Second, we need to pursue the other aspects of the strategy I have outlined over the past four days. Doing so is not only critically important to reducing Iran’s destabilizing influence in the Middle East, but can also help create leverage for a follow-on agreement to the JCPOA. Right now, one of the most important impediments to making any changes to the international legal framework governing Iran’s nuclear program is that the Iranians are dead set against it. As long as that is the case it will be difficult, if not impossible, to convince the Russians and Chinese to agree to any changes — and our European and Asian allies aren’t much more receptive to the idea. That needs to change.
The only way that Tehran is likely to be willing to accept revisions to the JCPOA regime is if doing so nets them a huge reward or they face severe costs elsewhere that they can only avoid paying by agreeing to changes to the nuclear arrangement. Given that the foundational assumption of the pushback strategy is that Iran isn’t interested in a less confrontational relationship with the United States or our allies in the Middle East and we need to limit its ability to do them (and us) harm, granting massive concessions to Tehran makes absolutely no sense. It runs entirely contrary to the core goals of the strategy. However, when it comes to threatening Iranian interests to coerce them into agreeing to changes to the current nuclear architecture, there are only two possibilities: Either we threaten the regime itself or else we threaten its regional position.
For reasons I will explain in greater detail, I don’t think threatening the clerical regime’s hold on power is the right approach.
On the other hand, I suspect that Iran could be convinced to accept changes to the framework governing its nuclear program if it faced the loss of its regional position and key regional allies. If the United States is able to stalemate Iran in Iraq, shoo them out of Yemen by helping to end the civil war there, bolster our allies by helping them start successful programs of internal reform, threaten the Assad regime’s control over Syria, and weaken the Iranian regime’s economic and political situation at home by overtaxing it abroad, Tehran is likely to become far more receptive to the idea of cutting a deal with the U.S., formally or informally, to prevent us from inflicting further defeats on them in the region.
Heck, if we can do half of this, the regime is likely to feel intense domestic pressure and fear further losses to its geostrategic position. In particular, the regime will fear that at some point we will turn our attention to Lebanon and their Hezbollah allies, and that is a threat they would probably be willing to make major concessions to head off.
Moreover, there just doesn’t seem to be anything else that Iran values enough to be willing to trade it for tighter nuclear restrictions. Despite President Trump’s repeated warnings, the threat of unilateral American sanctions so far has not moved the Iranians one bit. Given staunch European — let alone Russian, Chinese, and Indian — opposition to them, it doesn’t seem likely that they will. And again, I think it a mistake to try, as the administration seems absolutely determined to do, because even trying is likely to alienate our allies when we need them, and if renewed sanctions fail to move Tehran, it will damage U.S. leadership and reinforce Iranian intransigence.
The last step in this three-step approach would then be to offer Iran a follow-on agreement to the JCPOA. Again, we should do this only when the pushback strategy has made enough gains in the region to give us real leverage with the Iranians, so that we can secure their (unenthusiastic) participation in such a new agreement. That agreement ought to look very much like what the Trump administration is pushing for: It should eliminate the sunset clauses or push them much farther into the future; it should institute new procedures for inspections to diminish Iran’s ability to delay or prevent them; it should eliminate the more dangerous aspects of Iran’s research and development on nuclear energy; and it should probably limit Iran’s pursuit of long-range ballistic missiles.
To be clear, I largely agree with the Trump administration that we need a new agreement to address these problems with the JCPOA, but I strongly disagree with them about how best to get there. I fear that walking away from the JCPOA and trying to use the threat of American secondary sanctions against our allies and trade partners is going to leave us weaker overall — not just toward Iran — and is unlikely to produce this kind of an agreement. I think the only way to get such an agreement is to pursue the kind of pushback strategy I have argued for in these essays to create the kind of leverage we would need to convince the Iranians that a follow-on agreement to the JCPOA is their only hope.