Breaking Bad Behavior: Can There be Deterrence After the JCPOA?

On July 14, 2015, much of the world gave a sigh of relief as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) regarding the Islamic Republic of Iran’s nuclear program was announced.

At best, the comprehensive agreement is the kind of policy that instills hope in global diplomacy and solidifies presidential legacies. Despite years of multilateral negotiations, however, some critics believe that Iran remains a substantial threat to U.S. and global security. Many of the agreement’s critics cite Iran’s habitual use of asymmetric warfare and deterrence as reason to speculate that the joint agreement will not only fail but will increase Iran’s nuclear threat. This commentary inventories alternatives to the JCPOA and the pros and cons of each of these policies. A specific evaluation of Israel’s future policy towards Iran is also essential because the JCPOA has the potential to affect Israel’s strategy the most.

With the acceptance of the JCPOA, most influential governments from around the world adopted very similar nuclear deterrence strategies with regard to the Iran nuclear program. The White House has assured the U.S. public and other interested parties that the deal will create transparency that “ensures sanctions can be snapped back into place if Iran violates the deal.” Despite these assurances, Scott Sagan importantly illustrates, “Washington learned with India and Pakistan in the 1980s and 1990s, sanctions only increase the cost of going nuclear; they do not reduce the ability of a determined government to get the bomb.” Because of this potential complication, it is important to evaluate other viable options for deterring Iran from attaining a nuclear arsenal.

There are three primary options that could extend deterrence to the region: a multilateral agreement, a regional security system, and the ‘Holocaust’ declaration. The multilateral agreement, as Carlo Masala explains, “entails the great nuclear P5 powers declaring their willingness and readiness to defend Israel and the Arab states, by nuclear means if necessary, if Iran attacks.” If the P5 countries announced their willingness to such an arrangement, then Iran may feel less inclined to become hostile towards regional adversaries. The problem with this strategy is that it does not address the question of the P5 countries using nuclear weapons if Iran simply breaches the terms of the JCPOA. In other words, if Iran chooses to incrementally breach aspects of the agreement with more and more severity, will the P5 countries have the resolve to use force to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon? Additionally, even if a multilateral agreement such as this were reached, there is no reason to believe that the Israelis would view the guarantee as credible.

The second option that has been considered is the idea of a regional security system. The notion behind this strategy is that a security team or alliance would have a security plan with a single goal: to deter a nuclear Iran. The security team would be comprised of Arab states, Israel, as well as external powers like the U.S. and possibly Russia. The participants would commit themselves to defend any member of the system attacked by any means necessary. Again, there is potential with this strategy, but there are two major conflicts that could hinder its success. The first dilemma is the commitment of external powers to the success of the security system. Unsurprisingly, countries like Russia and China have been eager to conduct business with Iran, even while Iran was under sanctions. To be fully committed to the success of a security system such as this would require these external powers to be more concerned with regional issues and less concerned with the prosperity of their own economies. That may be too high of a demand. The second dilemma, and most important, is a security system and agreement such as this would have a high probability of ineffectiveness or even collapse due to the estranged relationship between Israel and Arab states and the U.S. and Arab states.

The third and final option is what Charles Krauthammer has named “The Holocaust Declaration”. The basic idea of this policy would be to treat any aggression by Iran towards another state, particularly Israel, as an act of aggression towards the U.S. Krauthammer argues that the greatest deterrence towards Iran can be declared by adopting and rephrasing Kennedy’s language during the Cuban Missile Crisis: “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear attack upon Israel by Iran, or originating in Iran, as an attack by Iran on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon Iran.” This final option may be the best for deterring Iran if the U.S. wants to consider an action besides reinstituting sanctions. But this strategy has flaws as well. By making the declaration that an attack against Israel would be viewed as an attack against the U.S., it could lead other nations within the region to believe that Israel is the only country valued by the U.S. This could make an already shaky relationship between the U.S. and Arab nations deteriorate even further.

The P5+1 countries obviously have a vested interest in the success of the JCPOA, as they were responsible for its creation, but every nation within the Middle East is equally concerned with the success of the agreement. No country has more to lose from the Iran nuclear deal than Israel, who announced its staunch opposition to the agreement on countless occasions. Before calculating what Israel’s next move will be now that the JCPOA has been signed, we must first comprehend the reasoning behind Israel’s discomfort with the agreement. The most obvious reason for Israel’s discomfort resides in former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s constant spew of anti-Israel and Holocaust-denying statements. These statements, accompanied by the Iranian governments’ nurture of resurrection ambitions against Iran’s Sunni neighbors and support of Hezbollah, has made Israel extremely uncomfortable with an agreement that will allow Iran to join the global community and gain economic and possibly global political power. Second, Israel views Iran’s real government to be extremely unstable. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) is a group giving grave concern to Israeli leadership. The IRGC has been known to recruit “true believers” to join its ranks and to subject them to ideological indoctrination. Additionally, Mohammad Ali Jafari, head of the IRGC, has come out against the JCPOA in certain aspects stating, “some points included in the draft [are] clearly contrary to and a violation of the red lines of the Islamic Republic of Iran, specifically of Iran’s arms capabilities, and will never be accepted by us.” This statement, paired with the fact that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) discovered in 2003 that the IRGC was responsible for securing production for nuclear materials, gives Israel no confidence to assume that other political authorities in Tehran could control the actions and operations of the IRGC.

Israel realistically has two options: a preemptive strike against Iran or revision of its nuclear deterrence policies to include clear “red lines” for Iran, trusting the U.S. will honor its policy of extended deterrence. In theory a preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities and key infrastructure could make sense for Israel, but only if certain assumptions were presumed: 1. Israel believes that Iran will inevitably have nuclear military power. 2. Iran will plan to use its nuclear forces as a first-strike option against Israel. 3. Iran’s key decision-makers will likely be irrational. While none of these assumptions can be dismissed outright, a strategy of preemption could prove risky and the retaliatory costs towards Israel could certainly exceed the anticipated benefits. This accompanied by the near unanimous worldwide praise of the JCPOA make this strategy an unlikely option for Israel to pursue.

The far more likely scenario for Israel’s future deterrence policy will be a declaration of its own nuclear capabilities and the development of rigid “red lines” that, if breached, would facilitate an aggressive response. For years now Israel’s nuclear ability has been its worst kept secret and, if Israel truly fears that Iran will gain military nuclear abilities, it is time to announce what nuclear capabilities it possesses and what actions will illicit an aggressive response. Israeli leadership will need to consider the likelihood of the U.S. backing its deterrence standpoint as well. After all, it is improbable that Israel would employ a deterrence strategy that was not fully supported by the U.S. and even more inconceivable to imagine Israel utilizing a military option without first presenting U.S. intelligence officials with convincing evidence to substantiate such an attack. No matter what strategy that Israel employs in the future, the U.S. will need to be a fundamental aspect to that strategy.

Although there are several different theories as to how Iran can be deterred by obtaining nuclear weapons, each option has a critical repercussion. The snap-back sanctions that the U.N. has threatened Iran with may not be enough to dissuade Iran from breaching the recent agreement, but, for the time being, it remains the best option for global security. What will be essential to the success of deterring Iran will be the communication of the P5 powers that need to keep the peace between Israel and Iran. Equally important is the amount of resolve these nations will demonstrate if Iran does in fact break its promises. The old adage of ‘trust, but verify’ seems to be the only path the world is currently treading down. One hopes it will be enough.