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.
Second, pushing Iran away now would ease, not increase, the internal pressure that Iran’s leadership faces. In fact, any such action would demonstrate a fundamental misreading of the Iranian people, and squander an opportunity that will be difficult to replicate.
The current concerted international efforts to curtail Iranian nuclear ambitions are working precisely as they should. For now, the Iranian people, who are suffering most through their isolation, appear to hold their government responsible for their hardship. In some measure, these actions contributed to the recent election outcome. With their credibility and financial stability threatened, Tehran has been pulled to the negotiating table. Let’s seize on the opportunity.
But imposing fresh demands will be perceived by our close allies as well as the Iranian people to be an aggressive act, stoking nationalism and giving Iran’s leaders, and the hardliners who are goading them, an opening to scuttle an agreement and blame the U.S. for failed negotiations, all without facing any internal backlash. This in turn would embolden and empower the wrong elements in Iran, thereby creating more military, diplomatic and economic instability in a region already on the edge. Meanwhile, our adversaries and allies alike would take our actions as evidence that we were never serious in the first place.
Second, well beyond the consequences vis-a-vis Iran itself, rejecting this deal would likely undermine our ability to use sanctions in other circumstances. At the UN I routinely encounter countries that do not want to impose sanctions or even to enforce those already on the books. The hard-line sanctions skeptics have their own self-interested reasons for opposing sanctions, but they ground their opposition in claims that America uses sanctions to inflict punishment for punishment’s sake. In response, I tell foreign diplomats that sanctions are not an end in themselves, but a means of marrying coercive measures with diplomacy to try to change behavior – whether that behavior threatens international security or inflicts widespread human suffering. And I tell those diplomats that when diplomatic paths seem to emerge, America will pursue them, and we will ease the pressure if the grounds for imposing sanctions are addressed.
In the case of Iran, the United States persuaded other countries to apply pressure for a purpose – in order to secure significant, long-term constraints that would cut off all of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon. If we move the goalpost now – arguing, for example, that there should not be sanctions relief until Iran stops supporting terrorist proxies or until it permanently gives up nuclear enrichment for peaceful purposes – we would give detractors a powerful tool to try to obstruct our future efforts on issues unrelated to Iran. Our efforts to reach this deal have affirmed the view of the United States as a tough but principled leader; rejecting it would be read in many quarters as a superpower intent on inflicting pain for its own sake.
So the next time we try to rally countries to join us in imposing asset freezes or travel bans on military leaders whose soldiers commit atrocities – as we succeeded in doing in July for six commanders in South Sudan – we may find it harder to marshal international support. And the next time we try to persuade the UN Security Council to ratchet up sanctions on North Korea following a nuclear weapons test or other provocative actions, we may find other countries less willing to impose stronger measures. Meanwhile, as we try to convince warlords and rogue states targeted by other sanctions regimes to change their ways, they may assume – not without reason – that we will keep punitive measures in place regardless of how they act.
How does rejecting the agreement give America a weaker military hand to play? Let’s imagine a world in which the United States rejects the nuclear accord that all other parties have embraced. The sanctions now in place would likely not be maintained and enforced by all the parties to the agreement, so those would lose their strong deterrent value. Iran would effectively argue to the world that it had been willing to negotiate an agreement, only to have that agreement rejected by a recalcitrant America.
In that world, should we find credible evidence that Iran is starting to move toward a nuclear weapon, the United States would almost certainly consider use of the military option to stop that program. But it’s highly unlikely that our traditional European allies, let alone China and Russia, would support the use of the military option since we had undermined the diplomatic path. Iran surely would know this, and so from the start, would have less fear of a military option than if it faced a unified coalition.
While the United States would certainly provide the greatest combat power in any military action, allies and other partners make valuable contributions—not just in direct participation, but also in access rights, logistics, intelligence, and other critical support. If we reject the agreement, we risk isolating ourselves and damaging our ability to assemble the strongest possible coalition to stop Iran.
In short, then, rejecting the Iran deal would erode the current deterrent value of the military option, making it more likely Iran might choose to pursue a nuclear weapon,and would then make it more costly for the U.S. to mount any subsequent military operation. It would tie the hands of any future president trying to build international participation and support for military force against Iran should that be necessary.
First, if the United States rejects this deal, we would instantly isolate ourselves from the countries that spent nearly two years working with American negotiators to hammer out its toughest provisions. Those partners believe that this is a sound deal – with a rigorous set of inspection measures that would allow us to know if Iran is not playing by the rules. And those countries have been very clear that they are not prepared to walk away from this deal to try to secure different terms. So if we walk away, there is no diplomatic door number two. No do over. No rewrite of the deal on the table. We would go from a situation in which Iran is isolated to one in which the United States is isolated. That would not be ideal under any circumstances, but it would be particularly damaging in a context in which Iran continues to pose a profound threat to international peace and security, against which global unity and pressure will be critical.
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All of that describes the region should the agreement go forward. It is also worth thinking deeply about what the consequences of a foiled agreement would be. One consequence would certainly not be a continuation of the current multilateral sanctions regime nor Iranian restraint on enrichment. Almost certainly, Iranians would feel betrayed and act out against U.S. demands. European and Asian partners would feel frustrated and misled. I would predict that Iran would aggressively seek investment in their energy sector, and countries such as China and India – likely followed by U.S. allies such as Japan and Korea and NATO allies such as France and Turkey – would move in. Broadly, the action would create distance between the United States and the world and diminish distance between Iran and the world after more than a decade when the reverse was the case. Further, it is hard to imagine any successful future U.S. negotiating effort with the Iranians on any topic for a decade or more. After all, Iran’s current political leadership has braved significant domestic criticism to pursue a deal with the United States, and it is hard to imagine that the collapse of the deal would not result in their being swept from office in favor of hardline figures. On other issues of tension between Iran and the United States, I would expect to see Iran turn even more aggressive, increasing support for proxies and attacking U.S. friends in the region.
Finally, walking away from this deal may well make it harder for us to rally multilateral coalitions necessary to confront other grave threats – whether those threats come from a regime armed with a nuclear weapon, a deadly virus, or a group of foreign terrorist fighters. These threats do not respect borders and pose a risk to all nations, yet too many countries sit back and expect the United States to shoulder a disproportionate share of the collective security burden. We must get other countries to do their part, but getting them to do so depends a lot on how the United States is perceived in the world.
The Iran nuclear deal has been championed by the president of the United States, every one of America’s European friends, and countless other countries around the world. If Congress rejects the deal, we will project globally an America that is internally divided, unreliable, and dismissive of the views of those with whom we built Iran’s sanctions architecture in the first place. Although it is hard to measure the precise impact of these perceptions, I and other American diplomats around the world draw every day on our nation’s soft power, which greatly enhances our ability to mobilize other countries to our side. While that soft power is built in many ways, two of its most important sources are the belief among other countries’ leaders and publics that we share similar values, and that America delivers on its commitments. Of course, there is no substitute for the essential deterrent and coercive effects rooted in the hard power of America’s unmatched military arsenal. But we should not underestimate the political capital we will lose – political capital that we draw upon for influence – if we walk away from this deal.
The Europeans would be the worst off. A congressional no would not only destroy the diplomatic process they have nurtured ever since France, Germany, and the United Kingdom began negotiating with Iran in 2003. It would also rob them of any illusions about their closest ally at a time when support for U.S policy in Europe is already low. Would the Europeans follow the American lead in confronting Russia or the self-proclaimed Islamic State? Why should they? Would they agree to a transatlantic trade pact? Not if the U.S. Congress sets a precedent by renouncing a negotiated agreement.
Such reactions would not be rational, given that Europe still needs the United States for its own security and prosperity. Yet, these are the kinds of responses that an irrational provocation like congressional disapproval of the Iran deal—and the United States’ ultimate inability to implement its part of the agreement—might engender. As a consequence, each instance of transatlantic cooperation would have to be bargained and paid for, rather than taken for granted among friends. By the way, restarting nuclear negotiations in the hope of a better deal would not even be on the table after a snub from Congress, as the international partners would not be able to trust the United States to live up to its existing commitments.
Tehran would be the winner of this U.S. rejection because it would achieve its major objective: the lifting of most sanctions without being required to accept constraints on its nuclear program. Iran could also claim to be a victim of American perfidy and try to convince other nations to break with U.S. leadership and with the entire international sanctions regime.
Meanwhile, Israel would be the loser, as Iran would resume its nuclear program without inspections and would garner support from other nations around the world. Ninety countries, including Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, have already supported the deal. Though Israel opposes it, many key Israelis do not, including retired senior generals and a former Mossad leader.
The history of Iran’s efforts to build a nuclear program without constraints is instructive. From 2005 to 2013, Iran rocketed from about 200 installed centrifuges to 20,000, while Washington sought to stop them through sanctions. Unrestrained by the joint nuclear agreement, Iran could quickly resume its aggressive nuclear program: move from 20,000 to 200,000 installed centrifuges, resume enriching uranium to 20 percent in its deeply buried facility, finish its plutonium reactor and develop reprocessing.
Vindicated in his distrust of the United States, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would no longer have any incentive to negotiate. The much flaunted and powerful Iranian “hard-liners” would likely return to dominate national politics and push President Hassan Rouhani’s more centrist team aside permanently. A return to the “hard-trodden path of diplomacy,” as Schumer proposes, would have to be conducted without Iran and its six negotiating parties.
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The collapse of U.S.-Iranian diplomacy would also endanger U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria and the interests they are guarding. The United States is in an odd predicament in its fight against the Islamic State: In Syria, it is supporting forces fighting the Iranianbacked Assad regime, while across a border that has mostly ceased to exist, it is operating even on the same Iraqi bases as Iranian forces supporting Iraq’s efforts to fight the Islamic State.14 The limited shared interest of rolling back the Islamic State and the diplomatic détente as negotiators worked on the nuclear agreement has restrained Iran, allowing a hands-off parallel effort that the administration has characterized as “uncoordinated deconfliction.”15 But the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has a demonstrated record of targeting U.S. forces, both directly and indirectly. With the return of a more hostile posture, it is likely that Iranian-supplied militias in Syria could begin targeting U.S. and coalition planes with surface-to-air missiles, or Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq could target U.S.-supported Sunni forces with roadside bombs (including particularly lethal explosively-formed projectiles, or EFPs). These attacks would exacerbate tensions between the United States and Baghdad and increase the sectarianism of the conflict, playing to Iran’s strengths.
If the US Congress spoils the Iran deal, a difficult debate will take place among Europeans as to their options. Europe could succumb to economic pressure, align itself with Congress and renege on the deal. But at a time when European relations with Tehran have warmed, and in a situation where Congress has obstructed the deal without giving it a chance to succeed, Europeans are likely to sympathize with Iran and forcefully stand against the US legislature.
If the US Congress wrecks the deal, Europeans will need to provide Iran with a package that offers economic easing from EU sanctions on the condition that Iran curtails its nuclear program. They will also need to protect their companies from US secondary sanctions by exerting the type of political pressure used to resist the Clinton administration’s extra-territorial sanctions on Libya and Iran in the 1990s. And whether Europe aligns itself with an anti-deal US Congress or not, it will incur costs and have to prepare to deal with the consequences of another military confrontation in the Middle East.
As Obama correctly noted, if Congress rejects the Iran deal it is inconceivable that America’s partners in Europe would then say “we’ll just do what [Arkansas Republican Sen.] Tom Cotton has to say with respect to our geopolitical interests.” US members of Congress opposed to the deal must be alert that their threats against Europe, and insistence on reaching a fantasy deal, are troubling many of their allies. This risks undermining trans-Atlantic unity and ultimately Western leverage, while inadvertently strengthening China and Russia. It’s understandable that Congress may see itself as omnipotent on domestic issues, but it would be dangerous for it to take a similar stance with world powers regarding matters of global security.
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