How to Get a Better Deal With Iran
Photo Credit: Foreign Policy
e Iran nuclear deal is a ticking time bomb. Its key provisions sunset too quickly, and it grants Iran too much leverage to engage in nuclear blackmail. To defuse it, Congress needs to do what it has done dozens of times in the past including during the Cold War in requiring changes to key U.S.-Soviet arms control agreements: Demand a better deal. And contrary to the President Barack Obama’s threats, this doesn’t have to lead to war.
First, let’s review why this deal is so dangerous. The sunset clauses — the fatal flaw of the agreement — permit critical nuclear, arms, and ballistic missile restrictions to disappear over a five- to 15-year period. Tehran must simply abide by the agreement to soon emerge as a threshold nuclear power with an industrial-size enrichment program. Similarly, it must only hang tight to reach near-zero breakout time; find a clandestine sneak-out pathway powered by easier-to-hide advanced centrifuges; build an arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles; gain access to heavy weaponry like more sophisticated combat aircraft, attack helicopters, and battle tanks after the lifting of the U.N. conventional arms embargo after five years; and develop an economy increasingly immunized against future sanctions pressure. Iran can achieve all this without even cheating by simply waiting for the sunset dates to be reached; but cheating will only get Tehran there faster, for example, if it refuses physical access by the International Atomic Energy Agency to suspicious sites and Washington can’t get European support to punish Iranian stonewalling.
And it gets worse. If world powers reimpose sanctions in response to Iranian noncompliance, Tehran can void the deal. The nuclear agreement explicitlycontemplates in paragraphs 26 and 37 of the main text that Iran will walk away from the deal if sanctions are reimposed in response to an Iranian violation. It also contains an explicit requirement in paragraph 29 of the main text for the United States and the EU to do nothing to interfere with the “normalization of trade and economic relations with Iran.” Let’s call these Iran’s “nuclear snap backs,” wherein Tehran will threaten nuclear escalation if the world powers try to force it back into compliance with the agreement.
But even without this arrow in their quiver, the Iranians over time will be immunized from economic shocks. Once European companies are sufficiently invested in Iran’s lucrative markets, any Iranian violations of the deal are likely to provoke disagreements between Washington and its European allies. Indeed, why would Europe agree to new sanctions when they have big money on the line? Their arguments against new nuclear sanctions will include questions about the credibility of evidence, the seriousness of the nuclear infractions, the appropriate level of response, and likely Iranian retaliation.
This dynamic undeniably threatens the effectiveness of the agreement’s Joint Commission — an eight-member body comprised of the United States, France, Britain, Germany, a representative from the EU, as well as Russia, China, and Iran — established to monitor the implementation of the deal. While an even more difficult-to-achieve unanimous decision is required for most decisions, a simple 5-to-3 majority is needed to get approval should Iran object for all-important IAEA access to suspect Iranian sites. The administration designed this scheme to bypass Russia and China if they take Iran’s side in a dispute. Washington assumes it can always count on European votes. But this is a mistake. Europe will have strong economic incentives to demur, particularly as pressure from European business lobbies grows, and good reason to buck the United States if Iran threatens a nuclear snap back. While Washington can unilaterally reimpose U.N. sanctions if the issue does not get resolved and it “deems the issue to constitute significant non-performance,” it is unlikely to do this in the face of European resistance.
The same dynamics apply to the reimposition of non-nuclear sanctions, such as terrorism or human rights sanctions. On July 20, Iran informed the U.N. Security Council, stating that it may “reconsider its commitments” under the agreement if “new sanctions” are imposed “irrespective of whether such new sanctions are introduced on nuclear related or other grounds.” Would Europe agree to a U.S. plan to reimpose terrorism sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran if it was found — once again — to be financing terrorism? This is doubtful given that Tehran would threaten to return to its nuclear activities including large-scale uranium enrichment, putting not just European investments but the entire nuclear deal in jeopardy.
In other words, Europe’s fear of a collapsed deal and lost billions would erode American leverage and diminish our ability to reapply snap back economic sanctions. And as Washington’s influence steadily weakens, its options become increasingly limited. Over time, with sanctions off the table, American or Israeli military force could become the only option to stop an Iranian nuclear weapon. If and when that war comes, Iran will be far stronger — economically and militarily — than it is today.