Rejection of the Iran nuclear deal would harm U.S. interests
If the U.S. congress rejects the nuclear deal with Iran, it will have multiple negative reprecussions for U.S. interests and security. The most likely impact of U.S. rejection of the deal will be a gradual collapse of the sanctions regime as our partners have no interest in reopening negotiations with Iran and are already starting to renew trade relations. Additionally, rejection of the deal will damage U.S. credibility as a global leader and its diplomatic capital for many years as the U.S. was critical in forming the consensus for the deal in the first place. Iranian hardliners will push to accelerate the nuclear program in retaliation for the slight and moderate elements will be unable to push back. While war is not necessarily inevitable, with all other options closed off, the U.S. and Israel will be forced with a choice on whether to attack or accept a nuclear Iran.
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The United States could try to disrupt an Iranian breakout by issuing new sanctions, but these would have limited effect without international participation and would further antagonize nations that perceive the U.S. sanctions regime as a rogue effort that interferes in their own trade relations with Iran. With such a short breakout time, it is also unlikely that U.S. sanctions could prevent Iran from enriching enough uranium to produce a weapon. Israel would – justifiably – pressure the United States to take immediate military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities. At this point, with a demonstrated record of U.S. unilateral action (in the form of sanctions) against Iran, it is doubtful that the United Nations would approve a strike, leaving the United States little choice to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities without the support of the international community.
Even the most strident advocates of a military strike acknowledge that this would not prevent Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon. Optimistic forecasts suggest that a strike would only set back Iran’s nuclear program by three to five years, necessitating additional strikes and driving Iran’s nuclear program deeper underground. It would also have the perverse effect of encouraging Iran to develop a nuclear weapon to deter further attacks. This was exactly the precedent set by the Israeli strike against Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981, which “triggered a nuclear weapons program where one did not previously exist,” Målfrid Braut-Hegghammer concluded in a 2011 study based on primary-source documentation of Iraq’s nuclear program. The 1981 Osirak strike invigorated a decade of Iraqi nuclear weapons development, which was only interrupted by Operation Desert Storm in 1991 when Iraq was on the brink of producing a bomb. "
The United States has few options for dealing with the North Korean nuclear challenge, and no good ones. A pre-emptive strike risks an unspeakable catastrophe. Sanctions have not worked, and tightening them further is no more likely to. Diplomatic talks will be difficult for the United States because an agreement would involve a compromise that would allow North Korea to keep its nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, if the goal is to prevent Pyongyang from developing an accurate nuclear-tipped ICBM, then negotiating with Pyongyang may well be the only way to try to defuse a looming crisis.
Even under current conditions, such talks would be fraught, the odds tilted against success. But if the U.S. thrusts aside the nuclear deal with Iran—and uses contrived evidence to do so—the message to North Korea and others will be that America’s word is disposable and the U.S. cannot be trusted to honor its commitments. This would deal a possibly fatal blow to any chance of a diplomatic effort to, if not halt or reverse, at a minimum slow down North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
Indeed, walking away from the Iran deal, or contriving circumstances that force Iran to do so, would not only open up a now dormant nuclear crisis with Tehran, it would also close down perhaps the only option that might prevent a far more dangerous crisis with North Korea.
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Most directly, rejecting the nuclear deal would undermine the international nonproliferation regime, which nonproliferation experts have argued is today in a state of crisis.24 As the RAND Corporation’s Jeffrey Kaplow and Rebecca Davis Gibbons wrote in a recent report, the deal “offers at least the prospect of a sustainable resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue,” which “has been the central preoccupation of U.S. nonproliferation policy – and that of multilateral bodies such as the IAEA Board of Governors – for more than a decade.” They warn that the spread of enrichment and refinement technology represents a challenge to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), but note that this is not unique to Iran and will be the subject of future debates regarding other nations’ nuclear development. Congress must consider that leaving Iran’s nuclear program unconstrained would do far greater harm than good for the enforcement of the nonproliferation regime by undermining the IAEA’s ability to conduct intrusive inspections and signaling that the United States is not prepared to enforce nonproliferation agreements. This would only further hinder diplomacy on nuclear issues with other nations, particularly those participating in the Non-Aligned Movement. Additionally, enforcing the nonproliferation regime could quickly face new challenges if Iran’s rivals in the Gulf chose to pursue their own nuclear weapons programs in response to an Iranian breakout.
North Korea already harbors heightened suspicion and mistrust of Washington’s motives, fearing that the U.S.’ real objective is removal of the Kim regime and reunification of the Korean Peninsula under South Korean leadership. U.S. abandonment, without just cause, of the Iran deal would both validate and exacerbate those beliefs; to Pyongyang, the lesson would be that Washington saw diplomacy merely as a prelude to efforts to isolate, pressure and seek to remove the Iranian regime. Why would Kim Jong Un even begin negotiations if he is convinced that Washington would then look for excuses to unravel an agreement, should one be reached?
The message from Washington, of course, would not be heard in Pyongyang alone. The administration’s too-clever-by-half strategy of messing around with the Iranian nuclear accord—doing just enough to tempt Tehran to walk away from the deal after Trump publicly acknowledged that his goal is to undo it—almost certainly would undermine its credibility with nations whose cooperation it desperately needs to deal with the North Korean nuclear challenge. The recent unanimous U.N. Security Council resolution imposing tougher sanctions on North Korea demonstrates two things: first, that a unilateral U.S. approach is impracticable; and second, that China and Russia can be useful partners in pressing Pyongyang on its ballistic missile and nuclear programs. If anything, the Trump administration is banking too heavily on Beijing to somehow solve the problem on our behalf.
But consider China’s reaction should the U.S. treat the nuclear agreement with Iran in a slapdash, dismissive manner. Beijing might well be angered given its interests in buying Iran’s oil and investing in its infrastructure. But it would be positively alarmed at the implications for North Korea, which presents China with a major security headache on its doorstep. China long has maintained that diplomacy with Pyongyang is the only viable answer to the North Korean nuclear problem, and it believes in the six-party format, which, not entirely unlike the seven-party format of the Iran negotiations, includes both China and the U.S. The precedent of the U.S. effectively dismissing an accord negotiated by a team of countries and ratified by the U.N. Security Council would give China considerable pause, raise serious questions in its mind about whether the U.S. can be trusted not to act similarly with North Korea, and make it virtually impossible for Beijing to vouch for Washington’s good faith vis-à-vis Pyongyang.
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With Congress’ unilateral action undermining a cornerstone of the nonproliferation regime, other nations would likely conclude that the current political climate in the United States has rendered it unable to act in its own interest or the interest of international security. Our partners will be justifiably reticent to include the United States in future negotiations that could be undermined at the last minute by domestic political considerations. Many of the negotiating partners spurned by a congressional vote of disapproval will figure prominently in upcoming international debates and could use this precedent to argue against the United States having a veto in major negotiations. U.S. intransigence on the Iran nuclear agreement would be leverage against U.S. diplomats at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris this December – it is not difficult to foresee Chinese diplomats refusing to accept compromises on the basis that they would not prevent climate-denialists in the U.S. Congress from derailing an agreement anyway. Russia and Iran, both burned by the agreement and more hostile to U.S. interests as a result, could leverage the blame on the United States for the collapse of the Iran deal to limit U.S. influence in negotiations to resolve the Syrian civil war. The European Union has expressed an interest in pursuing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations – if the United States scuttles the deal that has given them the political capital to pursue those negotiations, why would Federica Mogherini invite the U.S. diplomats to the table?26
Allies also might lose faith. Throughout the long-simmering nuclear crisis with North Korea, the Bush and Obama administrations managed to preserve solidarity with South Korea and Japan. Going forward, any sustainable solution to this crisis will require implementation of a joint U.S.-South Korea strategy backed by Japan. Moon Jae-In, South Korea’s newly elected president, is a strong proponent of engagement with the North, and both Seoul and Tokyo are desperate to contain the North’s nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities. It’s hardly an exaggeration to suggest that both would be apoplectic if, by repudiating the nuclear accord with Iran, the U.S. effectively cut off the path to a diplomatic solution on the peninsula.
The odds against a negotiated agreement with North Korea are preternaturally long, but it would be the height of irresponsibility not to test its possibility. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently offered the welcome suggestion that the U.S. is open to diplomacy and reassurance to Pyongyang that the U.S. is not intent on regime change. Surely, both he and others in the administration—Generals James Mattis, H.R. McMaster and John Kelly in particular, all of whom reportedly lobbied for Trump to certify Iranian compliance with the nuclear accord the last time around—understand how hollow those words will ring if, the next time certification is in play, they fail to persuade the president. The least one can hope is that they will see the linkage, because it’s a pretty good bet that this president won’t. And it’s just as good a bet that, by failing to peek just around the corner, he would be creating the prospect of a two-front nuclear crisis that America and the world can ill afford.
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The most important of the JPOA’s interim sanctions-relief measures involves the purchase of Iranian crude oil. Starting in 2012, U.S. oil sanctions compelled key countries purchasing Iranian crude to make significant cuts in their imports every six months. Under the JPOA, those countries were allowed to freeze reductions at already-reduced levels without risking sanctions. The end of JPOA sanctions relief under the INARA would mean that the administration would be required to impose sanctions on countries importing Iranian crude oil if they did not make significant additional reductions over the next six months. The countries that would be affected would include China, India, Japan, South Korea, and Turkey.
The key would be China, the largest purchaser of Iranian crude, which reluctantly made major cuts in imports to provide leverage for diplomacy. Convinced that the United States walked away from an effective solution to the nuclear problem, Beijing might simply ignore the re-imposition of U.S. oil sanctions and refuse to make further cuts, forcing the United States to choose between not imposing sanctions (and exposing them as a paper tiger) or imposing them and risking a major confrontation with China. And even if the U.S. chose the more confrontational course, China could possibly find workarounds, creating new banks and companies to bear the brunt of sanctions for facilitating oil purchases, while insulating major Chinese entities from the reach of U.S. sanctions and proceeding to increase purchases.
A less likely possibility is that the Chinese, wishing to avoid a confrontation with the United States and able to find alternative suppliers in today’s well-supplied oil market, might decide to go along with the re-imposed sanctions. But instead of making the significant additional reductions required by U.S. sanctions law (roughly 20 percent additional cuts over six months), it might proffer a token reduction (e.g., a few percent), counting on the United States to regard that as sufficient not to trigger sanctions rather than precipitate a confrontation.
To avoid commercial disadvantage, India, Japan, and South Korea have been willing since 2012 to reduce crude oil purchases only as long as China was doing so. Following the rejection of the nuclear deal, they could be expected to follow Beijing’s lead, either making token reductions of their own or ignoring the re-imposition of sanctions in the expectation that Washington would not pick a major fight with a united front of regional powers and trading partners.
First of all, the possibility of an Israeli military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities goes up considerably. The Israelis would claim that, having restrained themselves for years while the talks were ongoing, they now had the moral right and strategic imperative to act. It is possible that Israel has been bluffing all along  to try to get the United States and international community to act— or that its last realistic window of opportunity to bomb Iran was in 2010-2012 before the deeply buried Fordow nuclear facility became operational rendering an Israeli air strike ineffective.
However, it is also quite possible that lacking a large enough air force for a comprehensive campaign, the Israelis will launch a less ambitious set of strikes, in order to set the Iranian nuclear program back a few years while leaving Iran’s conventional naval and missile capabilities intact.Iran might retaliate proportionally with missile strikes against Israel and using its global network of proxies to launch terrorist attacks against Israeli and possibly American targets.Or Iran could go further, believing that the United States was complicit in the attack and respond conventionally against American naval assets and forces deployed on the Arabian Peninsula, forcing the United States to finish the job through a military campaign lasting weeks against Iran: something that would be worse for Iran than the United States, but that to say the least, we should all want to avoid.
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How would the Iranians react to congressional rejection of the JCPOA and U.S. efforts to strengthen sanctions? Some engagement-minded Iranians might recommend taking the “high road”—let the Americans shoot themselves in the foot; maintain the interim accord’s nuclear freeze and enhanced monitoring measures without initiating the nuclear and monitoring steps required by the final deal; launch a worldwide campaign to blame the United States for the collapse of the diplomatic effort; and plan for increasing nuclear capacity at a time when Iran would escape any criticism for doing so.
However, such an Iranian reaction is very unlikely. With the United States resuming sanctions that had been suspended during the negotiations and the U.S. president legally barred from implementing the comprehensive sanctions relief that was Iran’s main reason for reaching the nuclear deal, there is little chance of Tehran opting for the high road. Spurred on by domestic opponents of the nuclear deal, the supreme leader could be expected to retaliate against congressional action by forbidding steps to implement the JCPOA and authorizing the resumption of nuclear activities suspended under the JPOA.
To win over international opinion and encourage the erosion of international sanctions, Iran might initially see advantage in only a gradual increase in nuclear activities—testing advanced centrifuges but not increasing the number of operating centrifuges, resuming the construction of the originally designed Arak reactor, suspending the conversion of enriched uranium hexafluoride to oxide, discontinuing the JPOA’s enhanced monitoring measures, and so on.
However, as time passed and the Iranians saw the United States actively seeking to retain and expand sanctions, nuclear self-restraint would become less and less politically tenable and Iran’s nuclear capabilities would grow. Even then, the Iranians might well be reluctant to boost their capabilities at a rate that would cause alarm and provide a justification for new sanctions or the consideration of military options.
There’s a good deal to be had. The opportunity must not be squandered. The deal is not yet in place but enormous obstacles have already been overcome since secret U.S.-Iranian talks began and a productive Washington-Tehran relationship was established for the first time since 1979.
The outstanding issues include unfettered access for International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to all Iranian sites, including military sites; the sequencing of sanctions lifting; the permitted scope of Iranian nuclear research; and the fate of the arms embargo on Iran. Of these, the first is the most intractable. Obama cannot settle for less than unambiguous Iranian acquiescence to full site access. On the Iranian side, only the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, can grant that. He has said he won’t. Then again, he has said many things and talks have proceeded. Khamenei knows how much the vast majority of Iranians want this door-opening accord, and how critical it is to a battered economy. His absolute power does not make him politically immune.
Both sides probably have a few weeks to play with. But to imagine the interim deal will hold, absent a final accord, is folly. America’s coalition will fray; Russia and China will start the blame game; Iran will eventually start installing new centrifuges again; the politics of Iran and the United States will shift; Israel will take its brinkmanship an inch or two further; and the hooded, throat-slitting barbarians of Islamic State — enemies of Shiite Iran and the United States — will advance, kill and plunder, relieved of the one conceivable effective coalition to confront them.
The author argues that if the Trump administration follows through with its consistent threats to pull out of the nuclear deal with Iran, it will "ultimately result in American interests being taken into account last in global decision-making bodies."
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If the Trump administration makes good on its threat to pull out of the Iranian nuclear deal, the fallout will spread to North Korea where the possibility of any kind of diplomatic solution, which most experts see as the only viable path, will evaporate.
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Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Thursday it was in the interest of the United States to remain committed to a multilateral nuclear treaty.
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The director of the C.I.A. has issued a stark warning to President-elect Donald J. Trump: Tearing up the Iran nuclear deal would be “the height of folly” and “disastrous.”
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As the reality of Donald Trump's White House win sinks in among nuclear deal opponents, some are insisting that pulling out of the agreement is unwise. Instead, they say, Trump should step up enforcement of the deal, look for ways to renegotiate it, and pursue measures to punish Iran for its non-nuclear misbehavior. Such a multi-pronged, get-tough approach may even give Trump cover to fend off any criticism he may get for keeping the deal.
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The author argues that threatening to "tear up" the nuclear deal with Iran could provoke them into restarting their nuclear program as, "if Tehran expects to be punished no matter what, then why would it comply in the first place?"
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Joel Rubin argues that rejection of the nuclear deal with Iran would lead to either "an unconstrained Iran that can advance its nuclear program or a trade war that will make maintenance of the sanctions unsustainable."
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Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations warns that if the U.S. rejects the nuclear deal with Iran, it would "significantly weaken our ability to achieve our broader foreign policy goals – most of which in 2015 require us to mobilize broad international coalitions."
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Dalia Dassa Kaye argues that congressional rejection of the nuclear deal with Iran would mean that key partners would likely abandon the sanctions regime, allowing Iran to reap the benefits of sanctions relief without having to abide by any of the nuclear restrictions. She concludes that if "anyone is going to get a better deal than the one being debated today, it would likely be Iran,"
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Joseph Cirincione details the likely negative consequences from U.S. rejection of the nuclear deal with Iran for U.S. interests, concluding that "Congress would be foolish to reject this historic opportunity."
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