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Down the Road

September 5, 2015

Many concede that the Iran nuclear agreement is indeed a bad deal, but believe that it nevertheless buys time for a more robust response to the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions. One friend asked, “Even if it only postpones or delays Iran’s obtaining nuclear weapons, isn’t that still a worthwhile outcome? Can’t we kick the can down the road for a decade or so, and then renegotiate or extend the agreement, with all the same options we have available today?” In a word, No. Even if Iran fully complies with its obligations under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and does not cheat—a big “if”!—when its key terms expire in ten to fifteen years, we will be in a worse place: our position will be weaker, and Iran’s will be stronger. 

Morton Klein and Daniel Mandel, writing in The Washington Times (August 16), outline seven ways in which Iran will be stronger once the JCPOA is fully implemented. I recommend reading their article in full; here are its key points:

1. Iran nuclear facilities will be better protected from external attack, including cyber-attack; under the terms of the JCPOA, Western powers commit to help Iran secure its nuclear facilities, including against “sabotage.”

2. By year 13, Iran’s breakout time—the time it would need to create a nuclear weapon—will be “almost down to zero,” as President Obama told NPR in April.

3. Iran will have had time to harden and reinforce its underground nuclear facilities, such as the bunker at Fordow, and to build new ones, better able to withstand attacks.

4. Iran will have the advanced Russian S-300 air defense system, making potential air attacks on its nuclear facilities much more challenging and dangerous.

5. Iran will have restarted its missile program, including developing or acquiring intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBMs). These long-range offensive weapons—allowed under the terms of the JCPOA and corresponding UN Security Council resolution after 8 years— can carry nuclear warheads and threaten Europe and even the eastern seaboard of North America.

6. Iran will be stronger economically, having received hundreds of billions of dollars in unfrozen assets, sanctions relief, and new business.

7. UN Security Council resolutions will have been erased, providing international legitimacy to Iran’s nuclear program and requiring starting over with any sanctions process.

To this list, I would add:

8. Iran will be allowed to deploy an unlimited number of centrifuges (JCPOA §27) after 10 years. After 15 years, it can stockpile unlimited quantities of enriched uranium (§28) and install centrifuges anywhere (§31). This is how it gets to “almost zero” breakout time (item #2 above) and to nuclear-threshold status, fully permitted under and consistent with the terms of the agreement.

9. Iran will be allowed (after 8½ years) to develop faster, more advanced centrifuges (JCPOA §38, §B.8 and Annex I.B).

10. Iran will have modernized and enhanced its heavy-water reactor in Arak, with help from the U.S. and its allies, providing the plutonium path to nuclear weapons (JCPOA §B.8 and Annex I.B);

11. Iran will be stronger militarily, having re-armed once the embargoes are lifted on conventional-weapons (in 5 years) and ballistic missiles (in 8 years).

12. Iran will likely be stronger regionally, projecting power, supporting terrorism, and fomenting mischief. A decade from now, using the political and economic windfall from the nuclear agreement, it may control or influence more than the four Arab capitals about which it currently boasts (Damascus, Baghdad, Beirut, and Sana’a). It will also supplement its “death to Israel” rhetoric with arming, equipping, funding, and training its proxies, including the murderous Assad regime in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.

13. The Middle East will be a more heavily armed and even more dangerous place than it is today; Sunni states, led by Saudi Arabia, will not idly stand by and watch Iran re-arm, project power, and run down the clock toward a nuclear-threshold state. They, too, will amass conventional weapons, and potentially engage in a nuclear arms race as well. There will be plenty of opportunities for miscalculation and overreactions, or loss of weapons to others, including non-state actors (as has previously happened in Iraq when American equipment fell to ISIS). The disintegration of states, sectarian violence, ethnic cleansing, and general chaos of the Middle East tinderbox can only be exacerbated by the influx of more and more advanced weapons, conventional or (especially) nuclear.

14. The ruling theocratic regime will likely be stronger domestically, with more repression, less tolerance for dissent, even lower regard for human rights, and less accountability to the Iranian people;

15. American and international firms will have a large vested interest in the Iranian economy, and will heavily lobby against any new or re-imposed sanctions;

16. Iran will be free from UN Security Council oversight in 10 years (§v, xiv), released from inspections of its nuclear program in 15 years, and treated as any NPT non-nuclear-weapons state.

Taken together, these factors—under the terms of the nuclear agreement—mean that 10 or 15 years from now the West will have less diplomatic, economic, and military leverage than it has today. Iran will be much more powerful, more aggressive, and more intransigent than it is today. The Middle East will be more heavily armed and more dangerous.

When the JCPOA’s limits on Iran’s nuclear program expire, the West’s negotiating power will have been diminished. Iran will be more likely, not less likely, to be able to impose its will on the international community and to further its interests in any potential new negotiation. The pending nuclear deal is very problematic now, and will only make Iran into a much, much bigger problem down the road.


As always, I look forward to your feedback: Thoughts, additions, and rebuttals are welcome and actively solicited. If you have answers to any or all of the questions above, please let me know!

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