Toward an Independent American Foreign Policy — The Iranian Nuclear Agreement

Unfortunately for sober foreign policy discussions, the United States is beginning another election cycle with seventeen months left before the next presidential election. Foreign powers affected by American foreign policy are not unaware of American election cycles. To the shame of several American political candidates, the candidates are not averse to using such powers, and being used by them, to further their electoral prospects. So it should come as no surprise that the recently agreed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Regarding the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Nuclear Program (14 July 2015) has become the object of fierce controversy.

Negotiated with Iran by the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations’ Security Council plus Germany and the European Union), this agreement attempts to roll back the currently estimated time it would take Iran to undertake a crash program to develop a nuclear weapon from 3-4 months to over a year, thus giving its neighbors advance warning to prepare a response. It also requires Iran to reduce its stockpile of low enriched uranium from 10,000 to 300 kilograms, thus making it difficult for Iran to make even a single weapon. And it imposes stringent restrictions on Iran’s ability to produce highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium and plutonium for the next fifteen years, thus making it difficult for Iran to grow its nuclear weapons program (which Iran denies exists at all).

Under the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1968, Iran, like any other signatory, has always had the right to produce nuclear material for civilian purposes, so this agreement is not designed to stop Iran from developing nuclear energy. Instead, through one of the most intrusive inspection regimes in arms control history, one enabling the International Atomic Energy Commission to monitor Iran’s nuclear activities at every stage of producing a weapon (from mining to processing uranium to reprocessing spent fuel to weaponizing nuclear materials), the agreement delays the time when Iran might become a nuclear power for at least fifteen years. This supplies diplomats their most precious resource: time to develop a potentially better agreement, time for détente to occur so Iran feels less menaced by its neighbors and vice versa, and time to make a nuclear arms race in the Middle East less likely and less dangerous. Should Iran cheat, the agreement contains “snap back” provisions to reinstate the severe economic sanctions that appear to have limited economic growth in Iran over the past decade significantly.  So proponents say the agreement is both verifiable and enforceable, with significant sticks to punish non-compliance.

Critics nonetheless object that the agreement sells out one traditional American ally, Israel, and makes another important ally, Saudi Arabia, very uneasy. They note that the inspection regime is not quite as strong as advocates of the agreement claim, since the United States will not be represented among the international inspectors (who are presumed to be less vigilant than American-appointed inspectors would be). They say the process of determining whether Iran might have cheated is so muddled and bureaucratically clumsy that perhaps nothing will be done even in the face of a clear violation. They fear that the sanctions relief promised Iran in the agreement, which might result in the release of as much as $100 billion of Iranian assets, could be used to fund terrorists and insurgents in various proxy wars Iran has been waging throughout the Middle East. They also observe that, in the Clinton administration, agreement to provide sanctions relief in exchange for North Korea suspending its nuclear weapons development program failed dismally. The United States, and its allies, were taken for a ride.

Iran might try the same thing by using trade talks to divide the P5+1. It proved extraordinarily difficult to unite the P5+1 in the sanctions regime against Iran. Now businesses from many countries are eager to negotiate trade and investment agreements with Iran. Once these deals are under contract, their interests may make them averse to letting sanctions “snap back,” so the enforcement mechanisms of the agreement may not be “snappy” at all. With the release of recent videos of Iranians once again shouting “Death to America,” some wonder whether the agreement needs to be linked to other issues, such as Iran promising not to support terrorists, guaranteeing Israel’s right to exist, and releasing several American civilian prisoners accused of being American spies. Ideally, they would like Iran to renounce its nuclear program altogether, including efforts to develop nuclear energy, which do not seem essential in a country rich in oil.

This all makes exciting political theater, but, by and large, the critics are doing neither their country nor its allies a useful service. Because Iran today might break out and develop a nuclear weapon in 3-4 months, Iran’s neighbors are safer with an agreement that lengthens the break out period to over a year. Freezing Iran’s enrichment program for fifteen years is better than seeing it continue to grow almost exponentially today. While imperfect, the inspections regime is far more intrusive than the reliance on “national technical means” used by the Soviets and the United States to monitor compliance with arms control agreements during the Cold War.

Truth be told the greater danger is not that the economic sanctions will fail to snap back if Iran cheats, but rather, that the sanctions regime will collapse, as all cartels do collapse, within a few years or even months, thus leaving no means short of war to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons. American, and international, bargaining leverage to get a better agreement with Iran therefore ought not to be overestimated. And Iran is not North Korea. North Korea is as isolated from the world economy as any country could be. Its command economy produces nothing anyone wants to buy. In contrast, Iran has oil it desperately needs to sell, and sustainable development depends on Iran integrating with the rest of the world’s economy. Iran would pay a far greater price than North Korea for failing to abide by the agreement. That is why it made the agreement: the economic price of its weapons program was too costly to sustain it.

While it is in the interest of both Israel and Saudi Arabia to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power, it is not in the best interest of the United States to become their proxy in their conflict with Iran. And if the years since 9/11 have taught Americans anything, it is that the ability of American military power to shape events positively in the Middle East is extremely limited; quite frequently, our well-intentioned efforts are counter-productive.  Their main beneficiaries appear to be, in no particular order, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Iran, and China especially, because there were opportunity costs to waging protracted wars in the Middle East. Unlike Iran, the United States is a superpower. It must worry about multiple conflicts at the same time, including conflicts with possible rivals likely to be far more dangerous than Iran can ever become.  If all the agreement with Iran does for the United States is give it some breathing room to carry out its much-trumpeted “pivot toward the Pacific,” that would justify the agreement because a rising China is the greatest strategic challenge for the United States for decades into this century.

Most importantly, the agreement needs to stand or fall on its own merits, not on the basis of either hopeful or pessimistic linkages to other issues. It is not inconceivable that with sanctions relief a rising middle class in Iran might moderate the views of the theocrats, but there is no guarantee that will happen.  The purpose of arms control agreements is not to eliminate competition among states, but to channel it in less dangerous directions. In the 1970s and 1980s, neither SALT I (the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty) nor SALT II eliminated competition between the United States and the Soviet Union in the Third World, despite the best intentioned efforts of both Democrats and Republicans to link the agreements to approved behavior by the Soviets in Eastern Europe, Angola, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Whether the arms control agreement with Iran is approved in Congress or not, Iranian competition, sometimes by terrorist means, is likely to continue. The important question is whether, by extending the time required for Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, the agreement makes the United States and its allies somewhat safer?

In all probability, the answer is yes, but even if the agreement fails, even if Iran cheats, even if the snap back provisions do not work, the United States remains in a strong position. Iran does not yet have intercontinental nuclear delivery capability; acquiring it would take time and a great deal of money; testing it would alert intelligence monitoring services around the world. So there would be no mutual assured destruction scenarios; only Iran would be assured of destruction because the United States has both a huge quantity and wide variety of nuclear weapons, not to mention unrivaled short, intermediate, and intercontinental delivery capability. If Iran cheats, the United States would be in a position to say all means short of force have been attempted and to organize international collaboration to contain Iran. First-generation nuclear weapons have limited military utility; their primary purpose is deterrence; Iran could make no greater mistake than to be the first to use one of these weapons (the same applies to the United States, by the way) and there is every reason to believe Iran’s leaders know such an act would unite the world against them.

Another American war in the Middle East might well divide the United States from its allies, and especially from the P5+1, thus making the American strategic position far worse than it is now or likely to be under the agreement. If worse came to worst, the US could resort to a tried and true strategy, extended deterrence, at least for the Gulf States, who might need the assurance and the restraint provided by the American nuclear umbrella, if only to prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons of their own. Israel does not need American help. It has enough nuclear weapons to deter at least a dozen nuclear-armed Irans.

So what is all the fuss about? At home, another seemingly endless election campaign has begun. An important, but very limited step toward rolling back Iran’s current and slowing down its possible future nuclear weapons program has been cast as a betrayal of a long-term ally, leading it toward the oven. This is absolutely false because Israel is far more capable of incinerating Iran than Iran is of incinerating Israel, and that will be true for decades to come. Iran’s population dwarfs that of its neighbors in Iraq, Israel, and the Gulf States. It will be a regional power no matter what. Iran’s neighbors fear it could become a regional hegemon, with the cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia today potentially escalating to something hotter. That is a legitimate concern, but Americans have limited options.

The best is to slow down Iran’s nuclear program and buy time for a possible détente. The worst is to go to war with Iran at the behest of an odd coalition of Sunni Arabs and Israelis, some of whom seem never to have found a war they did not want the United States to wage on their behalf. This nonsense must stop. Because the free flow of oil is vital to the world economy, the United States has no choice but to be concerned with the regional balance of power in the Persian Gulf, but it is time to declare Independence Day and tell Iran’s neighbors we will no longer be proxies for them. Our best interest is a regional balance at the lowest possible cost and level of risk, which the agreement seeks to provide. Our ultimate fall back is extended deterrence. It worked during the Cold War. There is no reason it cannot work again, even if the agreement fails, but the agreement deserves a chance to succeed first.