Giving Iran too much to lose

After years of false starts, the U.S. and leading world powers finally struck a deal with Iran a couple of weeks ago, curbing Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for some sanctions relief. Skeptics in the U.S. Congress remain unconvinced though, threatening to kill the deal when they return from their recess in September. They claim that the agreement is not stringent enough and that relieving the nuclear sanctions would ensure Tehran becomes flush with extra cash – some of which could be used to sponsor terrorism abroad. But a more likely scenario is that Iran will go out of its way to remain in the international community’s good graces: Tehran now has far too much to lose by sowing serious trouble abroad. Instead of trying to scotch the deal, Congress should streamline the negotiated sanctions relief, and quickly give Iran too much to lose.

Isolating Iran by killing the deal will make it more likely that Iran acts like it has nothing to lose – something that is not in the West’s nor in Israel’s interest. 

{mosads}Although the sanctions relief negotiated in the deal is strictly linked to nuclear-related issues Tehran is unlikely to rock the boat by accelerating its sponsorship of terrorism abroad. In fact, immediately following the accord, Tehran seems to have completely cut-off funding for the Palestinian militant group Hamas – with ostensible Western-ally Saudi Arabia now taking Hamas under its wings. The “don’t-appease-Iran” crowd can prove their anti-appeasement credentials by first dialing back support of Saudi Arabia, a major source of extremist funding.

And let’s not forget that terrorism and human-rights related sanctions on Tehran are already firmly in place – and will not be removed as a consequence of the nuclear deal. Even after all the nuclear-related sanctions are removed, Iran will still remain one of the most heavily sanctioned countries in the world. And if Iran is found to be creating serious trouble – domestically or abroad – there is no reason that the president or Congress could not ramp up such sanctions

What if Iran cheats on the nuclear deal and tries to make a nuclear weapon on the sly? Because of the very intrusive inspection measures agreed to it is very unlikely that Iran could get away with such cheating. But more importantly, Tehran would risk losing billions of dollars in revenue by doing so because were such cheating detected the sanctions would come thundering down again – not a sunny prospect for Iran’s already devastated economy.

In any case, the U.S. intelligence community’s National Intelligence Estimate – a consensus view of 16 separate U.S. intelligence agencies – found whatever research Iran may have been carrying out on nuclear arms ended in 2003. According to Reuters, the high-confidence of the American intelligence agencies was based – among other things – on “both telephone and email intercepts in which Iranian scientists complained about how the leadership ordered them to shut down the program in 2003.” Director of U.S. Intelligence, James Clapper has since confirmed he has a “high level of confidence” that Tehran is not currently weaponizing.

So, not only is there no evidence that Iran is interested in weaponizing, there is high-quality evidence that it is not intending to do so. Both the increased IAEA inspections – and sanctions-relief incentives – of the nuclear deal will further ensure this remains the case. Furthermore, there is no evidence that Iran has cheated on the interim accord with world powers for the last year and half, which bodes well for the future.

The nuclear deal is not about stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons – the best intelligence says they are not pursuing nukes – but about increasing our confidence that they will not do so in the future.

While some members of the U.S. Congress kowtow to the moneyed lobbies and posture against the deal, senior-level former Israeli security chiefs approve of it. Both the former head of Shin-Bet – the Israeli internal security agency – and the ex-chief of Mossad recently came out in favor of the nuclear deal with Iran.

Speaker John Boehner who said the deal is “unacceptable,” to him and that “we’ll do everything we can to stop it” would better serve American – and Israeli – interests by listening to these seasoned senior Israeli security officials rather than to paid lobbyists. 

And those arguing for more time to hammer out an even better deal are sadly deluded: with more time Iran’s nuclear program would only grow bigger. And many countries – especially non-Western ones – were already tiring of the sanctions regime, pressing for open access to Iranian oil and trade deals or carving out exemptions from the sanctions for themselves. 

In fact, previous possible nuclear deals with Iran in 2003, or the one brokered by Turkey and Brazil in 2010 – when Iran’s program was smaller – might have been somewhat better but each spurned agreement has led to an expansion in Iran’s program. So any future deals would likely be worse for the West and Israel than what’s been achieved by the current administration. 

There appear to be only benefits to concluding the nuclear deal with Iran: stringent controls over its uranium and plutonium fuel cycles, more “soft” control over Iranian actions in general – both domestic and foreign – and some humanitarian reprieve for Iranian civilians living under sanctions.

If Congress wants Iran to be constrained – not only in its nuclear program but also in its actions abroad – then they ought to support the nuclear deal. On the other hand, if congress opposes the nuclear deal they will all but ensure that Tehran acts like it has nothing to lose. Congress should streamline its approval of the nuclear deal and rapidly give Iran too much to lose. 

The question is simple: does Congress want Tehran to act like it has something to lose – or like it has nothing to lose?

Butt, a nuclear physicist, is senior scientific adviser to the British-American Security Information Council. The views expressed here are his own.

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