It is probable that after 60 days of intense debate in Washington, DC, and conceivably Tehran, the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, ” signed on July 14 by Iran and the UN Security Council’s five permanent members plus Germany (the P5+1), will enter into force. But no one should confuse this outcome with a solution to the problem of Iran’s nuclear ambitions or its contributions to the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East. On the contrary, depending on how it is implemented and enforced, the agreement could make matters worse.
This is not to suggest the JCPOA makes no contribution. It places a ceiling for the next decade on the quantity and quality of centrifuges Iran is allowed to operate and allows the country to possess only a small amount of low-enriched uranium for the next 15 years. The agreement also establishes, in US President Barack Obama’s words, a “where necessary, when necessary” inspections mechanism that has the potential to verify whether Iran is meeting these and other commitments.
The net result is that the accord should lengthen the period it would take Iran to produce one or more nuclear weapons from several months to as much as a year, making it more likely that such an effort would be discovered in time. The prospect that the JCPOA could keep Iran without nuclear weapons for 15 years is its main attraction. Sanctions alone could not have accomplished this, and using military force would have entailed considerable risk with uncertain results.
On the other hand (there always is another hand in diplomacy), the agreement permits Iran to keep far more nuclear-related capacity than it would need if it were interested only in civil research and in demonstrating a symbolic ability to enrich uranium. The agreement also provides Iran with extensive relief from economic sanctions, which will fuel the regime’s ability to support dangerous proxies throughout the Middle East, back a sectarian government in Baghdad, and prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Moreover, the accord does not rule out all nuclear-related research and does not constrain work on missiles. Sales of ballistic missiles and missile parts to Iran are banned for no more than eight years. Sales of conventional arms to Iran are prohibited for no more than five years.
There is also the danger that Iran will fail to comply with parts of the agreement and undertake prohibited work. Given Iran’s record, this has understandably been the focus of much concern and criticism regarding the pact. What matters is that non-compliance be met with renewed sanctions and, if needed, military force.
A bigger problem has received much less attention: the risk of what will happen if Iran does comply with the agreement. Even without violating the accord, Iran can position itself to break out of nuclear constraints when the agreement’s critical provisions expire. At that point, there will be little to hold it back except the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, a voluntary agreement that does not include penalties for non-compliance.
It is important that the United States (ideally, joined by other countries) let Iran know that any action to put itself in a position to field nuclear weapons after 15 years, though not explicitly precluded by the accord, will not be tolerated. Harsh sanctions should be reintroduced at the first sign that Iran is preparing a post-JCPOA breakout; this, too, is not precluded by the accord.
Iran should likewise be informed that the US and its allies would undertake a preventive military strike if it appeared to be attempting to present the world with a fait accompli. The world erred in allowing North Korea to pass the nuclear-weapons threshold; it should not make the same mistake again.
In the meantime, a major effort must be launched to assuage the concerns of Iran’s neighbors, several of which will be tempted to hedge their bets against Iran’s potential breakout in 15 years by pursuing nuclear programs of their own. The Middle East is already nightmarish enough without the added risks posed by a number of would-be nuclear powers. Obama’s claim that the agreement has “stopped the spread of nuclear weapons in this region” is premature, at best.
It will also be essential to rebuild strategic trust between the US and Israel; indeed, this will need to be a high priority for Obama’s successor. And the US should push back as warranted against Iran’s foreign policy or treatment of its own people.
None of this rules out selective cooperation with Iran, be it in Afghanistan, Syria, or Iraq, if interests overlap. But here, too, realism should prevail. The notion that the nuclear agreement will lead Iran to moderate its radicalism and rein in its strategic ambitions should not be anyone’s baseline scenario. In fact, the emergence of an ever more capable Iran, not a transformed one, is likely to be one of the main challenges confronting the Middle East, if not the world, in the coming years.
© Project Syndicate 1995–2015