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Not Good Enough

August 1, 2015

In a previous article, I outlined the major problems with the nuclear agreement with Iran: Weak inspections, generous and essentially irreversible lifting of sanctions, allowing Iran to re-arm, too-short duration, key missing components, and questionable legitimacy. Most importantly, the deal launders Iran’s decades-long illegal conduct, retroactively absolving it from any misdeeds, and commits to proactively support and protect its nuclear program in the future. Advocates for the deal are having trouble rebutting these arguments, so they have resorted instead to three different responses. The most common seems to be ad-hominem attacks on critics, in an attempt to change the subject from the virtues (or defects) of the agreement itself to the questionable motives or the character flaws of those posing the challenge. I addressed this issue in the last round, and refuse to further engage on this front. The other two responses are more substantive, and deserve a substantive reply.

The second rejoinder is that while the deal may indeed be a bad one, it is good enough to meet its objective: to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. The third response concedes that it’s a bad deal, and may in fact not even be effective in preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, but asserts that it’s worth trying anyway, because it’s really the only choice short of war, and nobody wants war. I’ll address this final retort in my next post; in this article, I will focus on the question of whether the deal is “good enough.”

“The perfect is the enemy of the good,” say supporters of the JCPOA. “Maybe it’s not all we wanted, but it will do the job.” We all agree on the objective—preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. So the relevant evaluation is not relative to some theoretical ideal, or compared to earlier expectations and statements, but only against that objective. Does the proposed agreement make it, in fact, less likely that Iran will obtain nuclear weapons, or does it make this undesirable (or even disastrous) result more likely?

There are three scenarios to consider. The first is that Iran reneges on the deal and makes a “breakout” to a bomb. In the second scenario, Iran cheats—not walking away completely, but stonewalling inspectors, playing for time, and making minor, incremental violations (the “creep-out” strategy) or working in undisclosed clandestine facilities (“sneak out”) to build nuclear weapons. And the third scenario is that the Islamic Republic fully complies with the letter and the spirit of the JCOPA and operates completely within its restrictions for the agreed-upon timeframe— Iran “waits out” the agreement’s duration and then marches, openly and legally, toward nuclear-weapon capabilities. We must also then weigh the probability of each of these scenarios against its cost to the West, and consider what recourse the international community might have in each case to still prevent the ultimate result of a nuclear-armed Iran.

* * *

The purpose of the deal was to extend Iran’s “breakout time”—the time required for obtaining enough fissile material for one nuclear weapon—from the currently estimated two-to-three months to at least a year. The assumption is that with a year’s lead time, the international community can take action—diplomatic, economic, or other—that would deter Iran and convince it to reverse course, actions that may not be available on shorter notice. (For the record: I am not convinced either that this is the correct objective, or that the JCPOA in fact meets it. But I am not a nuclear scientist and, for the sake of this debate, am willing to stipulate that it is and it does.)

But what if Iran has a change of heart? Perhaps at some point during the term of the agreement, after Iran has received its sanctions-relief windfall, conditions on the ground will change. Maybe the Iranian regime will perceive some danger or circumstance that it did not envision when agreeing to the deal. This could be an Israeli or Saudi warning, a threat on its borders (ISIS?) or to an ally (Assad?), or perhaps another country in the region announcing its intent to obtain “peaceful” nuclear technology. Or perhaps the mullahs will decide that the U.S. and its allies have failed to meet one of their obligations, such as by imposing some restriction that “adversely affect[s] the normlisation of trade and economic relations with Iran” (§29 of the JCPOA). Or even—as has already happened, a mere 10 days after reaching the agreement!—Iran will consider some American or European statement to be a “material breach” of agreement.

The JCPOA explicitly includes a provision that allows any party to walk away from the deal with 35 days’ notice (§36). In this scenario, Iran announces that it is withdrawing from the JCPOA, expels the IAEA inspectors, and breaks the seals on the stored equipment (§2, 29, 41, 47-48). It reactivates the centrifuges, ramps up to full production of enriched uranium, and marches full-speed towards a nuclear weapon. It may take them a year to get there; it may in fact be less, especially if they have already pursued the “creep-out” and/or “sneak-out” strategies.

What happens then? What recourse does the international community have? The hypothetical sanctions “snap-back” mechanism can take up to 65 days (§36-37). After that time, the UN Security Council resolutions authorizing international sanctions will be back in effect (unless the Security Council decides otherwise, subject to the veto authority of each of its five Permanent Members). But the U.S. and its allies would still have to re-impose the actual sanctions, a potentially lengthy legislative and/or regulatory process. And it would take additional time for the sanctions to take effect, and much longer still for them to have any significant economic impact. Furthermore, agreements already signed when the JCPOA is abolished are exempt from the “snap-back” (§37). Does any reasonable observer seriously believe that economic sanctions can be re-imposed and would have the intended deterrent effect to change the Iranian calculus within the one-year breakout time? If not, what other incentives or consequences are available—short of military action? And what happens when Iran, having achieved its breakout, detonates a nuclear device and gives the world an ultimatum, to lift all the new and re-imposed sanctions and do whatever else the Islamic Republic demands?

* * *

A more likely scenario is that Iran doesn’t officially withdraw from the JCPOA, but cheats on the margins, or behind the scenes—just as it had violated its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the interim Joint Plan of Action, and half a dozen UN Security Council resolutions for decades. Iran has tried in the past to circumvent international sanctions, to ship banned weapons to Syria and other Middle East “bad actors,” to obtain nuclear technology, and to stockpile more enriched uranium than the JPOA allowed.

In the “creep-out” strategy, Iran undertakes “activities, both open and covert, legal and illicit, designed to negate JCPOA restrictions without triggering costly multilateral reprisals.” It may operate more centrifuges than allowed, or stockpile more enriched uranium (or enriched to a higher level) than stipulated by the JCPOA. It may conduct forbidden work at a military site, such as Parchin, where inspectors have very limited access. Iran may build (or already have) an entire undeclared, clandestine facility, not listed in the agreement and not visited by IAEA inspectors—the “sneak-out” option. (If the IAEA discovers, it can request access, but the Iranians have multiple ways to delay or stonewall the inspections.)

If the U.S. and its allies suspect such cheating, they could, under the terms of the JCPOA, refer the matter to a Joint Commission, a Ministerial Review, and an Advisory Board. After a 35-day process (§36), the issue could be taken up by the UN Security Council, which has another 30 days to consider it (§36). Considering the time to cheat, time to detect, time to inspect, time to debate, time to decide on an appropriate response (or have sanctions authorization “automatically” re-imposed by default), and time for the response to have an impact, how much of the one-year breakout time is actually left for the international community to react to Iranian malfeasance? And considering how much the West has invested in this deal, and the “nuclear snap-back” option available to Iran, how likely are the parties to turn a blind eye to minor infractions, even if, in aggregate, they amount to complete gutting of the deal?

* * *

Finally, there’s always the possibility that Iran will actually abide by its commitments—neither reneging nor cheating—but simply “wait out” the JCPOA timetable, playing out the clock while continuing with only permissible nuclear activities. Iran is allowed to continue research and development on enrichment, provided it does not accumulate enriched uranium (§3). It may design (§3, Annex I §G.43) and test (Annex I §G.36-42) faster, more advanced centrifuges than the ones currently available. After eight years, it can begin to manufacture these advanced centrifuges (§4, Annex I §K.63), as long as it doesn’t deploy them in production.

After fifteen years, the limits on enrichment and stockpiling are completely lifted (§5, §7). President Obama, in an interview to NPR in April, stated that after about 13 years the Iranians will “have advanced centrifuges that enrich uranium fairly rapidly, and at that point the breakout times would have shrunk almost down to zero.” And that’s the best possible case: If Iran fully complies with the JCPOA terms, it will receive “a red carpeted fast track to complete its nuclear bomb.”

In parallel, Iran can arm itself with conventional weapons (after 5 years) and ballistic missiles (after 8 years). By the time the restrictions on enrichment end, Iran may have fully functional delivery vehicles for nuclear warheads that can reach anywhere in the Middle East, Europe, or the Eastern Seaboard of the North America. (As U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has pointed out, “that ‘I’ in ICBM stands for intercontinental, which means having the capability of flying from Iran to the United States.”)

So Iran might annul the agreement and walk away, or it might cheat and hope to evade detection, in either case thumbing its nose at the international community, which will have very limited recourse. Or, Iran—in the best possible case!—it can perfect its nuclear technology for a decade or so and then build a nuclear weapon—with no recourse at all. These are all very high-risk scenarios, and, taken together, have a very high probability. In any of these pathways, Iran can develop a nuclear weapon—whether it takes a year or a dozen years—if it decides to do so.

* * *

The difference between the post-JCPOA world and the one in which we’re living today isn’t really, therefore, about Iran’s abilities. Rather, it’s about Iran’s motivation, timetable, and resources to get nuclear weapons. The rationale for the agreement is that it reduces the motivation and extends the timetable, in return for increasing the resources available. Is that a reasonable tradeoff?

What if, in fact, the financial windfall and perceived victory actually encourage, rather than deter, the Iranian regime? Is it possible that Iran will be more likely, not less likely, to pursue its goal of regional hegemony and strategy of aggression? How much more damage can it do to the stability of the Middle East, and to the future of non-proliferation, with the sanctions-relief windfall? And is that more likely to happen after Iran gets a huge financial benefits, technical cooperation on its nuclear program, access to Western intelligence, and help defending it against foreign or domestic “sabotage”?

This analysis does not even consider the potential actions of other players in the region, watching anxiously on the sidelines. If the Arab world sees the agreement as a win for Iran, will the Sunni countries feel vulnerable and decide to take action? Saudi Arabia and other regional players have no financial constraints and are not currently subject to Western sanctions, UN resolutions, or arms embargoes. If they perceive a threat, what might they do? How would this further complicate the situation and destabilize the Middle East tinderbox?

When making a decision with incomplete information, like this high-stakes bet on an uncertain future, we must consider both the probabilities and the risks of each potential course of action. Yes, it is possible that the nuclear agreement will deter Iran and make the world safer. But it’s also possible that it will embolden Iran and make the world much more dangerous. Are we willing to place a $100 billion bet—with untold billions more yet to come—on the first outcome? How confident are we that the agreement will achieve its goals—and what is the price of being wrong?


As always, I look forward to your feedback: Thoughts, additions, and rebuttals are welcome and actively solicited! Please send your comments directly to me.

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