The High Stakes of the Iran Nuclear Deal

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The wall of the former US embassy covered in anti-US-murals. Image: Phillip Maiwald/Wikimedia

Those opposed to the nuclear deal currently being negotiated by Iran and the P5+1 typically make a number of criticisms: Iran may still be able to build a bomb at some point in the future; the United States should not ‘allow’ Iran to maintain uranium capabilities; the deal goes against traditional U.S. nonproliferation policy; and so on.  Though these critics rarely offer clear alternatives—after all, negotiating a better deal than the current one appears all but impossible—many still favor one option in particular: military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities.  This course of action, however, would be counter-productive.  Not only does the current deal with Iran draw on the successful track record of U.S. nonproliferation policy, it was developed in concert with other major powers and international nuclear norms.  On balance, it remains the best possible means of affecting the calculus of the Iranian leadership regarding its potential nuclear weapons program. By contrast, military strikes would only increase Tehran’s desire for nuclear weapons and could dramatically shorten the timeframe in which it would be likely to acquire them.

‘Holding the line’

The long-standing U.S. approach to nuclear nonproliferation has been to ‘hold the line’ by 1) sustaining and promoting the nuclear nonproliferation regime while 2) seeking to shape the interests of those outside the regime in favor of compliance. This enduring strategy is grounded in leadership of the regime (that the US largely built and sustained), including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and a host of other formal and informal instruments. This regime and specific U.S. nonproliferation policies have shaped the interests of states that have considered developing nuclear programs.

Often, this strategy has involved waiting for opportune moments, such as changes in political leadership or strategic shifts, to influence the calculus of foreign governments and pursue credible and lasting nonproliferation outcomes.  In South Africa, Argentina, and Brazil, for example, the United States promoted nonproliferation through intensive long-term diplomacy supported by efforts to limit nuclear technology acquisition.  Results were only achieved, however, once leaders calculated that relinquishing nuclear weapons and joining the regime was more attractive than remaining outside of it. Libya too was the target of coercive policies before it was ultimately persuaded to comply with its nonproliferation obligations.  Similar stories of opportune moments have occurred with Indonesia, Egypt, and the Soviet successor states.  Although each of these cases is unique, there is a common lesson: that the United States cannot force states to fall in line with U.S. nonproliferation goals.  On the contrary, it has been far more successful at using its influence to shape the interests of states so that nonproliferation becomes their policy of choice.

After Iranian violations of the NPT were first revealed in 2002, its leaders have walked a fine line between compliance and noncompliance, insisting on retaining an enrichment program larger than required for civilian purposes.  The virtue of the current deal is that it allows the P5+1 to ‘hold the line’ by bringing Iran into compliance with the NPT while also creating conditions that make compliance more attractive to Tehran than pursuing a nuclear weapons program. While the current elected leadership of Iran appears willing to respond to these incentives, only time will tell whether this willingness will become an enduring commitment.  This is why a rigorous verification regime backed up with the threat of serious consequences must be a component of any final agreement.

The demand side and the military option

Explanations for nuclear weapons proliferation tend to be either ‘supply-side’ or ‘demand-side’ explanations. Whereas supply-side explanations focus on how access to nuclear technology and knowledge affects the likelihood that states will develop nuclear programs, demand side explanations focus on why states want nuclear weapons in the first place, whether for security, prestige, or bureaucratic interests.   In the long term, the current deal has a powerful ‘demand-side’ logic – it offers the best means of stopping the Iranian program by addressing Iran’s demand for the bomb.  If the deal moves forward, sanctions are lifted (in step with Iranian cooperation), and Iran becomes more closely integrated into the global economy, there will be economic ‘winners’ within Iran who will be likely to oppose future attempts to pursue nuclear weapons.  In other words, the current deal promises to transform Tehran’s cost-benefit analysis about the value of a nuclear weapons program.

By contrast, military strikes on Iranian facilities would increase Iranian demand for a nuclear weapons program, undermine prospects for a negotiated deal, and allow less insight into the Iranian program in the future.  Whereas the deal could delay an Iranian nuclear weapon by a decade or longer, a military attack could result in a nuclear weapon in a matters of years – not to mention galvanize the Iranian population against the United States.

The failure of the Iran deal would also have a negative long-term effect on  non-proliferation efforts.  It would create a narrative in which future U.S. leaders could point to the failed Agreed Framework with North Korea and the failure of negotiations with Iran to argue that negotiations with proliferators do not work. This narrative could pave the way for the use of military measures in the future.  Moreover, the deal’s failure would send a message that the United States is not a reliable negotiating partner, hindering its ability to make the most of future opportunities to shape the interests of would-be proliferators.  Overall, this means that it would be a dramatic setback for non-proliferation and for the credibility of the United States.

Rebecca Davis Gibbons is a PhD candidate in international relations at Georgetown University. Her dissertation, “Baruch to Barack: American Hegemony and the Politics of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime” examines variation in commitment to nuclear nonproliferation among members of the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). The project focuses on the pivotal role of the United States in designing and promoting the nuclear nonproliferation regime.

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2 replies on “The High Stakes of the Iran Nuclear Deal”

This blogpost grossly oversimplifies American foreign policy options–presenting US choices as a dichotomy between as-is negotiations and a military strike–and glosses over the nuance of the current strategy and its challenges. There is a serious logic flaw to this argumentation: because a military strike would accelerate an Iranian nuclear arms race (which presupposes a number of questionable assumptions), therefore, the U.S. best option is its current strategy. I would suggest the author reexamine US options, timeframe, and challenges to come to a more insightful conclusion than this.

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