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.
A "nay" vote by Republicans against the Iran deal can have grave consequences even if they cannot override a presidential veto. Division, mostly along party lines, is never cost-free on national security issues. Countries hedge against American leadership even when U.S. foreign policies have a broad base of domestic support. They hedge more when domestic divisions convey that U.S. policies are not sustainable. Nuclear proliferation can be managed with this agreement; that becomes much harder if it unravels.
Capitol Hill has become a theatrical, partisan battleground where lawmakers can cast votes in the confident expectation of coming up short. Republicans can vote repeatedly against Obamacare without having to deal with the consequences of leaving millions of Americans without coverage because they can't override a presidential veto or the Supreme Court. Democrats can vote in large numbers against fast-tracking the Trans-Pacific Partnership because they know the White House will still be able to cobble together a majority.
Voting against the Iran agreement is different. A deep partisan divide would send all the wrong messages to U.S. friends, allies and adversaries. What we need is a bipartisan strategy to cope with the deal's downside risks and shore up our partners in the Middle East that will be affected by the lifting of sanctions on Iran.
So to summarize the practical effects of a congressional rejection based on political and diplomatic realities, Iran would get to reap some of the economic benefits of the rejected deal while paying a much lower price in nuclear restrictions. To be sure, Iran won't gain as much as it would if the JCPOA were implemented, and it would not gain the big prize of European investment in the Iranian economy. But Iran would still get benefits from resumed normalized trade with other key world economies outside the West. That's not optimal for Iran, but it's not a bad plan B, especially considering Iran would not face any serious constraints on the expansion of its civilian nuclear program outside the limitations of the NPT.
The critics of the Iran deal may be right that rejecting the deal won't necessarily bring about a war with Iran tomorrow, although the potential for conflict escalation will be higher with the breakdown of U.S.-Iranian engagement and communication. Periods of high political tension in the past have led to dangerous standoffs between Iranian and U.S. naval forces in the Gulf waters and particularly the Strait of Hormuz, for example.
It is critical for lawmakers to understand there will be serious consequences for rejecting the Iran deal. And those consequences look a lot worse for the United States and its partners than for Iran. If anyone is going to get a better deal than the one being debated today, it would likely be Iran, not the United States.
First, scuttling the negotiations would diminish U.S. credibility and reduce cooperation from the coalition that has helped get us the interim deal. The United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China each have been integral to this process. Unilaterally changing our demands at this point, before all the parties have had a chance to conclude and internally vet an agreement, would prove a losing strategy.
U.S. credibility in the volatile Persian Gulf region and the Middle East already is strained. By proceeding now and ignoring the rest of the parties to this potential agreement, we make it easier for the most unwilling of them to walk away from the negotiations with the excuse of U.S. “bad faith.” Perhaps more importantly, we risk further alienating some of our most valued allies when we need them most. That will turn the tide against our own interests, an especially perilous proposition as we rally the fight against ISIS.
This is why we should ignore the false argument that a better deal can be negotiated, and that a Congressional "no" vote will facilitate such an outcome. For example, critics of the deal argue that economic pressure on Iran will be maintained even if Congress votes “no.” Essentially, these critics are arguing that the rest of the world will maintain sanctions if we want them to. And they are also arguing that, by extension, Iran will comply with the deal without getting sanctions relief. This is a dangerous fantasy.
The problem with this argument is that to maintain the sanctions regime in the absence of an international agreement, we'd have to sanction the rest of the world, something that we are currently not doing. The current sanctions regime has been extraordinarily effective in large part because it is voluntary. We have used the threat of extraterritorial sanctions to cajole this behavior forward, but we have consistently waived these sanctions when our partners have shown that they are complying with international sanctions.
This sounds like a technical detail, but it is quite important. Our partners in constraining Iran’s nuclear program are sanctioning Iran voluntarily and in accordance with United Nations resolutions. Their doing so allows us to waive extraterritorial sanctions against them. However, a congressional “no” vote on the deal will eliminate this option, meaning that we will no longer be able to waive sanctions on our partners, who as part of the deal will no longer sanction Iran. The result will be that our partners will either continue to sanction Iran, thus blowing up the deal, or they won’t sanction Iran, leaving us to sanction them. The former scenario will lead to an unconstrained Iran that can advance its nuclear program and the latter will lead to a trade war that will make maintenance of the sanctions unsustainable. Neither outcome will lead to Iran returning to the table for the negotiation of a better deal.
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.
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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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