The real question on everyone’s mind with regard to the JCPOA is whether or not Iran will honor its commitments. There are two differing philosophies to this question.
The first is that of the agreement’s critics, who argue that Iran will act similarly to rogue nations in the past and violate the agreement in hopes of attaining a nuclear arsenal. After all, a very similar agreement was made with Iraq, and the U.S. ultimately invaded the country in 2003 because of what was viewed as violations to the agreement. Specifically, Saddam Hussein was required to, among other things: allow international weapons inspectors to oversee the destruction of his weapons of mass destruction; not develop new weapons of mass destruction; destroy all of his ballistic missiles with a range greater than 150 kilometers; stop support for terrorism and prevent terrorist organizations from operating within Iraq. Critics have pointed to the failed compromise with Iraq as an indicator of the forthcoming conflict that will arise from the JCPOA.
The breakdown of the Iraqi agreement is not the first time that the U.S. has been part of an arrangement that has gone south. On October 21, 1994 the U.S. and North Korea signed the Agreed Framework after North Korea announced its intention to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Similar to Iran’s recent commitments under the JCPOA, North Korea agreed to full compliance, including taking all steps deemed necessary by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to determine the extent to which North Korea diverted material for weapons in the past and giving inspectors’ access to all nuclear facilities in the country. North Korea eventually violated this arrangement, withdrew from the NPT, and attained nuclear weapons capability. Critics of the JCPOA have pointed to these failed agreements to validate their arguments. They are difficult to argue with as Iran and North Korea share some attributes, including violating international norms on nonproliferation, terrorism, and human rights.
Conversely, proponents of the JCPOA have argued that Iran has the right to peaceful nuclear energy and the right to address legitimate security concerns. It is no secret that Iran is trying to secure its position as a leader in the Middle East and the world. Advocates of the JCPOA contend that, because of its desire to emerge as a world power, Iran will be more likely to abide by the rules of the agreement and enhance its security through diplomatic relations with other world leaders. Additionally, enthusiasts of the JCPOA reject the idea that the U.S. is being seduced by a deal that is similar to failed agreements of the past and argue that the JCPOA is not the North Korea deal. First and foremost, the final agreement with Iran is vastly more comprehensive in terms of verification provisions and contains much stronger elements to deter cheating, as well as more meaningful incentives to motivate compliance than the Agreed Framework.
Second, advocates of the JCPOA point to the advancement of North Korea’s nuclear program compared to Iran’s when an agreement was signed as another essential difference: by the time the Agreed Framework was completed in 1994, North Korea was already estimated to have produced more than enough plutonium for a nuclear weapon. George Perkovich explains, “by contrast, neither the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) nor any intelligence agency has offered evidence that Iran has acquired enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon [and] therefore, Iran cannot hide behind a putative agreement and weaponize material it already possesses.” These two fundamental distinctions, coupled with advances in technical capabilities and the United States’ ability to adapt from former failed negotiations, give proponents the confidence to believe in the agreement’s validity.
Supposedly, the U.S. has three alternatives to the JCPOA in terms of resolving the threat posed by a secret nuclear program of Iran. The first and most popular alternative is for the U.S. to impose increased sanctions. For example, The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) explains that the U.S. must, “revive the policy that first brought about negotiations—a combination of tough diplomacy and crippling sanctions [and] this time around must not settle for merely delaying ‘breakout’ time, but forge a deal that truly stops all of Iran’s pathways to a bomb.” Despite the committee’s enthusiasm for developing an all-inclusive agreement that ensures that Iran will never develop a nuclear weapon, there are a few flaws in the strategy to re-impose sanctions.
The first and most obvious problem with this strategy is that the U.S. has already accepted the terms of the JCPOA and, arguably, is at the point of no return. Congressman Jerrold Nadler correctly assesses, “The Europeans, Russia, and China, being eager to resume business with Iran, having agreed to voluntary sanctions only in order to coerce Iran into negotiating an agreement, and having reached what they regard as a reasonable agreement only to have Congress pull the rug out from under them, would certainly not want to maintain their sanctions.” Second, if Iran determined that the U.S. was not adhering to its obligations under the agreement, then Iran would have no incentive to allow IAEA inspectors into its facilities and it could begin enriching as much plutonium as it wished.
The second alternative would involve the boycotting of Iranian banks. The basic idea behind this strategy is for the U.S. to impose, more-or-less, secondary sanctions in order to get Iran back to the negotiating table. Jerrold Nadler explains, “We would take on essentially the rest of the world, including all our closest economic and diplomatic allies, and, by threatening to cut off their access to the American economy through our banks.” In other words, the U.S. would not only try to influence Iran through an economic boycott but the entire world.
If that sounds suspiciously like coercion, that’s because it is. Unsurprisingly, there are several downfalls to this approach. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew sums it up best: “The countries we would have to coerce are among the biggest economies in the world [and] if we were to cut them off from the American dollar and our financial system, we would set off extensive financial hemorrhaging, not just in our partner countries but in the United States as well.” Another significant flaw in this approach is the fact that the rest of the world has the ability to call the American bluff. Over forty percent of U.S. exports go to these countries and American trading partners know that it will not shut down its exports or cut off countries that hold nearly forty-seven percent of foreign-held U.S. treasuries.
The third and final alternative to the JCPOA is direct U.S. military intervention. As Jeffrey Goldberg argued, “an Israeli strike could theoretically set back Iran’s nuclear program, but only the U.S. has the military capabilities to set back the program in anything approaching a semi-permanent way.” Many voices heard throughout the debate of Iran’s potential nuclear program have claimed that military action may be the only path available to the U.S. that would secure world stability. Besides the obvious consequences of military action including the loss of human life, there are some other issues that should cause the U.S. to pause.
In 2004, the Atlantic magazine conducted a war game which simulated preparations for a U.S. assault on Iran and in doing so they arrived at a few sobering conclusions. First, the U.S. government had no way of knowing exactly how many sites Iran had, how many it would be able to destroy, or how much time it would take to do so. Even worse, the U.S. had no way of predicting the long-term strategic impact of a strike. If these were the conclusions that this group came up with in 2004, when the U.S. had forces in neighboring Iraq, how much more ineffective would an assault be in present day? It is also important to note that even if the U.S. were successful in its endeavor to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities, Iran would be more hostile towards the U.S. if it ever did achieve the production of a nuclear weapon down the road. And that as a goal would be extremely likely if the U.S. violated Iranian sovereignty and invaded.
Each of these strategies offers a different alternative to resolving the conflict of a secret Iranian nuclear program. Unfortunately, each approach is even more unrealistic than the last. Currently, the U.S. has very little option but to embrace the terms of the JCPOA and to enforce those terms as rigidly as possible. Skeptics may believe it is foolhardy to ‘trust’ Iran, but in this case the old Reagan adage during the Cold War seems most appropriate: Trust, but verify.