How to assess the Iran deal and what to do about it

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The Iran nuclear agreement leaves open more questions than it answers. It clearly is a diplomatic coup for the Obama administration, and enjoys significant international support. But it is far less clear whether this agreement will enhance regional security or even the degree to which it constraints development of dual-use nuclear capabilities. These concerns have plagued the entire negotiating track, with numerous voices pushing for a tougher Western stance vis-a-vis Iran. But now with an agreement, the issue of what it will be is resolved. What now is important is to decide what to do with it. It will take time and analysis to understand completely the agreement's specifics, but the following is a guideline of possible steps.

Step No. 1: Evaluating the agreement

Before considering what to do about it, it is important to be clear on what it is. Again, details are important, but the following summary considerations are relevant.

First, the nature of the agreement as an arms control measure. This agreement as has long been anticipated, is flawed. Rather than eliminate Iran's ability to produce fissile material, as even the George W. Bush administration's deal with North Korea (briefly) did, this agreement accepts that Iran will be able to produce fissile material. In return, the agreement limits Iran's operational centrifuges by type and number, and enriched uranium by amount and grade for varying periods of time, the most relevant being the first 10 years. During that time period, the estimate in the administration's description of the April 2 agreement outline was that with these restrictions during that period, the Iranians would need one year to develop sufficient fissile material for one nuclear weapon. This, along with the one real classic arms control measure in it — removing the core of the Arak heavy water plant, and an enhanced inspection regime — are designed to give the international community confidence that Iran will be discouraged from breaking out, and if it does so, will be quickly caught. The assumption, then, is that the international community would act to penalize Iran through sanctions and other diplomatic efforts, and if necessary act, or tolerate others acting, to destroy nuclear infrastructure to preclude Iran getting a bomb.

So the agreement must sink or swim on the basis of this "one-year breakout time over a 10-year period" standard which the U.S. administration has itself advocated and argued it must have. Given that the administration, along with its P5+1 partners (the five permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany), abandoned true arms control in their negotiations with Iran, a major concession to an undeserving Iran, it's vital that the administration meets its own "flawed but acceptable" standard. Likewise, the inspection regime must be serious and generate confidence.

The second standard of measure is the political psychology of the agreement. In the end, the international community has been much more seized with the Iranian nuclear program than, for example, the Pakistani nuclear program, because of Iran's far more threatening regional role. Regional security flows not simply from constraining Iran's nuclear program, but from deterring or containing its hegemonic ambitions. Objectively, Iran's achieving even the April 2 version of a nuclear agreement was a political victory that can be translated into regional capital, as it refused to yield on its basic enrichment program or even most of its infrastructure (at most mothballing the majority of its centrifuges). So regional security depends on good part not just on Iran's nuclear capabilities post-agreement, covered above, but on its intentions, and those of the international community. And here the negotiating result can yield insight.

What is particularly important is the degree to which Iran was able to walk back what the U.S. administration and at least some of its international partners claimed were essential elements of any agreement back on April 2. The P5+1's yielding on points of importance would demonstrate either (or both) disunity and weakness in dealing with Iran, or too hurried a push to get any agreement. None of this would augur well for an agreement.

But the issues on which the international negotiators yielded are also important. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has clearly been focused on removing any hint of Iranian capitulation, admission of guilt, or "remorse" for a decade of violating international agreements and U.N. resolutions. While some of that position can be attributed to prickly national pride, a good deal of it can only be explained by Iran's interest in presenting itself not only as the victor in these negotiations, but also the aggrieved party, rather than the international community whose rules Iran violated. Thus the insistence on keeping essentially all of its infrastructure (except the Arak core); the refusal to engage seriously on the weaponization question (which incontrovertibly would establish Iran as violating international norms in a way none of its other nuclear-related actions would); and the demand that all sanctions be lifted immediately to the extent possible, including those related to other Iranian depredations beyond the nuclear file such as concerning ballistic missiles. Iran's pushing for changes in the April 2 preliminary agreement would strongly suggest not only a lack of regret and contrition, but also intent to use the agreement as propaganda to support its expansionist interests.

Step No. 2: Considering alternatives

During the negotiations. critics of the Obama administration could justifiably and logically call for ever tougher negotiating positions. Once an agreement has been signed off, the issue becomes what to do with a reality, not how to shape one. The U.S. Congress in the Iran Agreement Review Act specifically has the responsibility to pass judgment on the agreement, and could pass legislation upon that review to block the president's lifting of oil import sanctions — key to the entire deal — under the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). If that were to happen, and the president could not override the veto, the deal presumably would collapse. (Alternatives, while unlikely, are possible: Iran tolerating the continuation of those sanctions, and the administration finding subterfuges to avoid implementing violations of them, but this congressional power should be seen as decisive for the fate of the agreement.)

Given the inherent problem with the agreement — it does not end Iran's enrichment capabilities — the option to sink the agreement cannot be ruled out-of-hand. Justification for that course of action of course would increase if the other factors noted above — a record of consistent P5+1 caving, and Iranian insistence on a political "bill of good health" were present. But for Congress to vote to curb the president's NDAA sanctions waiver authority for the purpose of scuttling the agreement (there are other rationales; see below), it must be aware of the impact of this action, and what alternatives would remain to curb Iran's quest both for nuclear weapons capability and regional dominance. The major impacts of a congressional rejection are inventoried below.

Diplomatic chaos: As this is an international agreement with five other major states (and indirectly, the EU) involved, there is a significant commitment to this agreement in the international community. Were the U.S. to sink the agreement through congressional action, there should be no illusions that the international community would then quickly rally behind the U.S. for a new effort with Iran. Furthermore, the repercussions of blowing up an agreement would have a significant effect on the credibility and diplomatic power of the U.S. That does not mean the agreement should not be blocked. It does mean that the bar for doing so is fairly high, and the negative consequences of that action need to be recognized as likely and significant.

Sanctions relief: The U.S. could keep the U.N. sanctions in place even without an agreement, but there is no guarantee the Obama administration would do so were Russia and others to come up with an alternative deal even worse than this agreement and push in the U.N. Security Council for U.N. sanctions to be lifted. The EU sanctions require unanimity; but here the only real hardliner against Iran is France, and it is an open question whether Paris would support the U.S. Congress after having signed up for the agreement Congress then topples. U.S. sanctions of course would remain, but with no assurance that the international community would continue to adhere to them in what is ultimately, despite U.S. law, a "voluntary" act.

Fissile materials: While Iran would still be prohibited by U.N. resolutions from enriching, that has not stopped Tehran in the past from reaching close to the required amount of fissile material for a nuclear weapon. It could come that close again in two or three months, by the administration's estimate.

Inspections: Absent an agreement, Iran would be subject only to the inspection regime laid out in the Non-Proliferation Treaty, a regime repeatedly shown as totally inadequate to monitor its activities.

Intelligence: The intrusive inspections regime achieved under the interim agreement of 2013 and certainly the new agreement would by its nature complement and inform independent national intelligence efforts targeting Iran's nuclear program. That would be lost were the agreement tossed.

Military action: If military action were left as the only option to stop Iran from gaining a nuclear device, or sufficient fissile material to rapidly and secretly develop one, then the degree of international support for a U.S. strike would be important for domestic support and international cooperation, not only on Iran but a host of other issues. Were the U.S. itself to topple the agreement and thus in the eyes of many make inevitable a strike, international support for it would be very limited.

Enhancing deterrence: On the plus side, congressional scuttling of the agreement would put Iran on notice that President Obama is relatively isolated on Iran, and that American determination should be taken seriously. How seriously Iran would take the U.S. in this case, if isolated internationally, is a legitimate counterargument.

Step No. 3: Considering options short of rejecting the agreement

If rejecting the agreement is ruled out or not possible — because there are not the votes to override a presidential veto, because of the implications of rejection noted above or because the agreement turns out not to be as bad as some feared — there are still options beyond tanking the agreement, especially if it is seriously flawed.

Congressional disapproval: Especially if the administration can be shown to have caved on significant provisions of the agreement as laid out in the April 2 provisional accord, Congress could find various ways within or outside of the mechanisms of the Nuclear Agreement Review Act to express its distaste for certain of the agreement's terms, disappointment with the administration's conduct, and skepticism towards Iran. This could include passing a motion of condemnation with the understanding that Congress could not override the inevitable Obama veto. The agreement's condemnation would put Iran on notice that much of America does not stand behind Obama without incurring the costs of torpedoing the deal. Such action can be combined with other options laid out below.

Countering Iranian mischief-making: This is official U.S. policy most recently affirmed in the Gulf Cooperation Council summit at Camp David, but whether the administration's heart is in this or not if it could damage its diplomatic triumph with Iran is open to queston. In particular, if the administration, despite Vice President Biden's and other officials' denials, seeks a transformational relationship with Iran as a potential force for stability or even security partner, as Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif keeps suggesting, via the agreement, then there is real potential for regional disaster. Congress, public opinion, American allies and partners in the region, and the more realistic members of the international community such as France, could press the administration to accentuate this countering/containment policy as the price for acceptance of the agreement. The more blatant the administration is in yielding in the negotiations, and the more pronounced the Iranian argument of vindication coming out of them, the more necessary this would be.

Making the military option real: Regardless of what above course of action the administration, Congress and the international community finally decide on from the above options, the military option is the final arbiter of Iran's quest for weapons. Under any circumstances, Congress and American public opinion should understand and accept — as explicitly as possible, including by congressional formal action as well as by the administration's (this one or the next) policies — that this is on the table. The degree of bluntness can vary depending upon how bad the agreement is, and how bad Iran's behavior is, but there is no getting around this reality.

Nothing, including reluctantly accepting a really bad agreement, is as dangerous as leaving open the question of how the U.S. would react if Iran approaches a nuclear weapons capability.

Ambassador Jeffrey is the Philip Solondz distinguished visiting fellow at the Washington Institute where he focuses on U.S. strategies to counter Iran's efforts to expand its influence in the broader Middle East. One of the nation's most respected diplomats, Ambassador Jeffrey has held a series of highly sensitive posts in Washington and abroad. In addition to his service in Turkey and Iraq, he served as assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration, with a special focus on Iran.