By Gregory Bernstein
Is the world any safer? This question is at the heart of the debate over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, more commonly known as the Iran deal. Proponents of the deal argue that yes, the agreement which was reached between the United States and Iran will make the world safer because it contains the unprecedented level of monitoring and verification necessary to achieve the long sought after goal of ensuring that Iran cannot develop a nuclear arsenal. Those who oppose the deal argue that easing sanctions will only serve to reward and embolden Iran in its pursuit of nuclear weapons. One element which has been relatively absent from the discussion over the Iran deal is serious consideration about what other courses of action are available to the United States if the Iran deal falls through due to Congressional opposition.
The course of action concerning Iran’s unrepentant pursuit of nuclear weapons can be broken down into three broad categories: 1) a negotiated agreement such as the one reached last week by Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Zarif, 2) the continuation or expansion of existing national and international sanctions, or 3) some form of military action. Since each course of action is designed to achieve the same end, they can all be evaluated using the same metric – how feasible and effective they would be at preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons in the near future. When evaluated using this metric, it’s clear that the first option, and the current deal in particular, is far and away the most likely course of action to yield a successful outcome.
Those who advocate for continued or expanded sanctions do so in the hope that increased pressure will weaken Iran’s negotiating position and enable the United States to reach a more favorable agreement sometime down the road. The logic used to support this line of reasoning is tenuous at best and dangerous to America’s national security interests at worst. Even if one were to assume that there is a positive correlation between international sanctions and a willingness on the part of Iran to concede to U.S. negotiating demands, there’s little evidence to suggest that the United States could have any success in expanding the existing sanctions regime. This May, Peter Wesmacott, the British Ambassador to the United States, told journalists that sanctions against Iran had reached their “high water mark” and that if the United States and Iran couldn’t reach an agreement by their self-imposed deadline, it was likely that there would be “sanctions erosion”. These sentiments were echoed by Peter Wittig, the German Ambassador to the United States who claimed that “sanctions might unravel” if diplomacy were to fail.
As the support of America’s European allies for the existing sanctions becomes ever more tenuous, the number of countries which are exempted from having to comply with U.S. sanctions regarding Iran continues to grow. In March of 2012, ten European Union countries (including France, Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom) as well as Japan were given six month waivers from U.S. financial sanctions which target countries that trade with Iran. Similar waivers were also given to South Korea, China, India, and Turkey and were reissued in December 2012 and June 2013. These waivers are intended to recognize that many European and Asian economies covet Iranian crude oil and are unwilling to fully halt their importations. It’s no coincidence that Iran’s largest trading partners – China, India, Turkey, and South Korea – all appear on the list of countries which have been able to continue trading with and importing from Iran. Their presence seems to suggest that sanctions, no matter how vigorously they are enforced by the United States and its European allies, are unlikely to have the full effect that many had hoped for when the United States first announced new sanctions in 2010 and 2013.
Another alternative to the negotiated agreement is some form of military action or, at the very least, the “credible threat of force”. This is the course of action most frequently preferred by hawkish conservatives who believe that President Obama has signaled weakness to the Iranians by agreeing to the terms set forth in the deal. This, of course, is not a particularly novel idea. The centerpiece of Mitt Romney’s Iran policy when he was running for president was his criticism that President Obama had yet to establish a credible threat of force and his promise to do so. Military action is also a possibility which has been implicitly endorsed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who, after this deal was announced, reiterated his willingness to defend Israel at any cost – including the use of Israeli special forces to carry out an aerial attack of suspected nuclear sites in Iran. While military force or the threat of military force is an oft-talked about solution, is it a realistic one? Most likely not. Jeffrey Goldberg, an American-Israeli journalist writing for The Atlantic opined that in a best case scenario, a successful military attack along the lines of a “surgical strike” would only serve to delay the amount of time until Iran can obtain a nuclear weapon. He writes “three things would happen in the event of an American military strike: sanctions would crumble; Russia would become Iran’s partner; and the ayatollahs would have their predicate to justify a rush to the bomb.” At that point, only a sustained military campaign would be sufficient to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and such a campaign would result in an all-out regional war which would promise to cause the Middle East to descend into chaos.
The evidence makes it overwhelmingly clear that the two most highly touted alternatives to the current Iran deal are impractical to say the least, but what about the deal itself? In the same way that detractors of the deal bear the burden of proposing alternatives, the deals proponents surely bear the burden of enumerating and defending the specific elements of the deal which will lead to a marked improvement of the current state of regional and global security as well as nuclear non-proliferation. There might be no better person to accomplish this task then Ernest Moniz, the current Secretary of the Department of Energy and former head of the Department of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Secretary Moniz, one of the nation’s foremost experts on nuclear technology, not only played a hands-on role by negotiating directly with Iranian atomic energy minister, but he has offered, in multiple statements, complete assurances that the negotiated agreement blocks every possible path by which Iran could obtain the nuclear fissile material necessary to create a nuclear weapon. His reassurances carry more than just the weight of his own word, however – twenty-nine of the most preeminent nuclear scientists have signaled their support for Secretary Moniz’s detailed claims regarding the more technical aspects of the agreement. Negotiating a peaceful solution to Iran’s nuclear aspirations didn’t require a rocket scientist. But it did require a nuclear scientist. A nuclear scientist who was able to help the United States reach an agreement which has the wholehearted support of his most well-respect peers.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is far from a perfect deal and it would be disingenuous for anyone to describe it as such. Negotiating with the leaders of a country which has spent much of the previous four decades cursing the United States is far from palatable. But it’s necessary. It’s more necessary now than it has been at any point in the past. As Iran inches closer and closer to achieving the deadliest invention in human history, we’ve crossed the Rubicon and reached the point where inaction will no longer suffice. The United States must act to prevent a nuclear Iran. If not this deal, then what?