Testimony of Michael Makovsky, PhD: Implications of a Nuclear Agreement with Iran
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The Iran nuclear talks in Vienna have been extended till tomorrow, July 10, with a chance of further extension. Any day the emerging deal isn’t completed is a good day, because I believe it to be deeply flawed, with historically severe implications for American standing and national security. It would align ourselves closer with the Islamic Republic of Iran--the world’s chief sponsor of terrorism and a fierce ideologically enemy of the United States and our Arab and Israeli allies – and grant it international legitimacy to become a threshold nuclear power in 10-15 years, even if it observes the deal. Iran would be enriched with tens of billions of dollars in sanctions relief and increased exports, thereby strengthening its radical regime and supercharging its nefarious activities. The deal would spur and accelerate other regional countries’ pursuit of nuclear weapons. This will regionalize the issue, so that in subsequent years we won’t only need to assess what Iran is doing in its nuclear program, but we’ll also need to monitor what Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and our other traditional regional allies might doing on the nuclear front.
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This deal, instead, seems part of a broader policy to embrace Iran and effectively nourish its regime with tens of billions of dollars in sanctions relief and rejuvenated trade and exports. The result will not be greater Iranian moderation, as the Administration hopes, but will be a strengthening of its regime internally and a more aggressive posture abroad. A regime guilty of some of the world’s worst human rights abuses – jailing political opponents and journalists, executing the most people per capita of any country, denying the Holocaust and threatening to annihilate Israel – and reeling from the pain of tough sanctions, will be taken out of intensive care and made healthy and immune to attack by this deal.
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Israeli security experts have suggested an Israeli military strike could push back Iran’s nuclear program three or so years. U.S. military action, with our greater capability and easier access, would likely push it back further. The brief history of strikes against nuclear facilities suggest the delay could be longer. Israel’s strike on Iraq’s Osirak’s reactor in 1981 was intended to set Iraq’s program back only 1-3 years, and yet the program had not been completed a decade later by the time of the first Iraq War. (The 1981 attack did drive the Iraqi program underground, and it progressed a great deal by the time of its 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the Gulf War.) Syria had not reconstituted a nuclear program when its civil war broke out in 2011 – four years after Israel’s strike on a suspected reactor in 2007.
Iran, of course, has a much more extensive and hidden nuclear program than Iraq or Syria did. Still, a U.S. military strike on it could follow the same pattern. It has taken Tehran several decades and tens of billions of dollars to get this far with its nuclear program, and the government might well be reluctant to invest billions and decades more to recreate a program that could be destroyed again in a matter of days. Nuclear scientists – those who survived military action, and prospective new ones – might be reluctant to work in facilities that will be attacked again. This would especially be the case if it was clear U.S. military action wasn’t confined to a few days or weeks, but was could be carried out over a period of time necessary to ensure all relevant facilities were disabled or destroyed. Military action would likely also serve as a warning to other countries not to pursue nuclear weapons.
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Nor are economic sanctions the only leverage the Administration has been ignoring. President Obama declared early in his first term that he would use “all elements of American power” to prevent a nuclear Iran, and he has asserted repeatedly that “all options are on the table.”8 Now the Administration and its supporters claim the alternative is war.
In his second term, the Administration weakened virtually all elements of American power and took off almost all options off the table. It threatened to veto new sanctions, even though sanctions helped bring Iran to the table. It dismissed the military option, even though it was fear of U.S. military action that led Iran in 2003-4 to suspend crucial parts of its nuclear program. It distanced us from our regional allies, even though that has emboldened Tehran. And it has effectively aligned the United States strategically with the Islamic Republic, instead of supporting the internal opposition and confronting the regime and its terrorist proxies in the region. The Administration left itself only diplomacy, which without any credible levers has simply become pleading. And that in turn has only encouraged Iranian intransigence. This “empty holster,” as Tom Friedman put it last week in the New York Times, 9 has made war not the alternative but possibly the consequence of this deal.
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As negotiations for a final nuclear deal have played out, the Obama Administration increasingly has aligned itself with Iran’s interests in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. The result has been anger and dismay from our Arab and Israeli allies, who have increasingly questioned U.S. reliability and credibility, especially after we sympathized with the demonstrators and against allied regimes during the early days of the “Arab Spring” (after not supporting the uprising in Iran in 2009) and the non-enforcement of the Syrian red line. After two decades of American presidents, including this president, declaring that Iran needs to dismantle its nuclear program and that the United States will use all means to accomplish this, the Obama Administration initiated the last two- year stage of nuclear talks with Iran without even informing Saudi Arabia, Israel and our other close allies, and currently is advancing a deal to legitimize their arch-rival’s nuclear program. The United States has kept them at a distance and not taken seriously enough their grave security concerns, and has been overeager to accommodate Iran, a second- or third-rate power. Our adversaries have observed this as well, which has only emboldened Russian actions in Ukraine and China’s in the South China Sea. While the United States still possesses the capability of a superpower, many legitimately question whether we retain the will and credibility of one.
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The price to pay for this erosion of credibility and departure from established U.S. policy and interests will be grave. If this deal is completed, it will: guarantee the emergence of Iran as a nuclear power; place Israel in existential danger from Iran and the aggression of its terrorist proxies; set off a proliferation cascade that will raise the potential for conflict in the Persian Gulf, which incidentally act as bullish factor for oil prices; and empower and inspire radical Islamists across the region. With its credibility severely eroded, the United States – even if led by a new, determined president – will have significant difficulty restoring order to the region.
The most immediate consequence of a deal will be a realignment of interests in the region. It widely perceived that we have aligned ourselves with Iran, and our regional allies will continue to seek closer relations with Russia and China and distance themselves from us. Some of our allies in the region and outside it – such as India and South Korea, which are heavily dependent on oil imports – will also seek closer ties with Iran. On the positive side, our Israeli and Arab allies, who share a sense of abandonment by the United States, will intensify their quiet collaboration with one another on regional matters.
But, more consequential, some of our traditional Arab allies will seek other means of ensuring their security, and will develop nuclear programs or acquire nuclear weapons of their own. President Obama recognized with much confidence this consequence in 2012: “It is almost certain that other players in the region would feel it necessary to get their own nuclear weapons.”10 But now he dismisses it, stating in May about the Gulf Arabs, “They understand that ultimately their own security and defense is much better served by working with us.” In reality, Riyadh has good reason to question our reliability in defending them, as explained above. Though Obama warned the Saudis, “Their covert – presumably – pursuit of a nuclear program would greatly strain the relationship they’ve got with the United States,”11 it is simply implausible to suggest the United States would punish the Saudis if they develop a nuclear program.
As former U.S. secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Schultz asked in their superb Wall Street Journal op-ed on April 8: “Do we now envision an interlocking series of rivalries, with each new nuclear program counterbalancing others in the region?”12 In fact, this nuclear contagion will regionalize the challenge, so that we’ll have to monitor not just what Iran is doing on the nuclear front, but also Saudi Arabia and other countries. This will increase the chances of a nuclear conflict, whether through intent or miscalculation, among the countries that acquire the capability, and could well draw in the United States.
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In the lead-up to this deal, the United States has already felt compelled to deepen our commitments to our regional allies, perhaps move more troops and other assets to the region, and sell our allies more weaponry. The Obama Administration has already begun taking some of these steps – an interesting twist of fate, since the President entered office determined to reduce our commitments in the Middle East. Nevertheless, some have argued that such renewed engagement might allow the United States to contain a nuclear Iran – and the potential cascade of instability in its wake – much like the Soviet Union in the Cold War.
In reality, the challenges would be manifold and intractable, and the costs and risks prohibitive. First, successful containment is premised on deterrence, which in turn demands credibility. The United States by definition would have minimal credibility after having spent years declaring a nuclear Iran was unacceptable. Second, containment is innately reactive – it draws a line in the sand and waits for the adversary to try crossing it. This would allow Iran to try to challenge the United States and its allies over time, by engaging in slightly and steadily more provocative behavior piecemeal. Third, even when successful, containment is an indefinite, long-term obligation, based on a willingness to prevail in a contest of wills over some indeterminate period, and there is little indication so far that we wish to prepared to endure this contest and pay the price in blood and treasure. A final concern is whether the nature of the regime in Tehran – and other regimes or entities that might acquire nuclear weapons – would even render it containable with nuclear capability. To again cite Kissinger and Schultz: “Previous thinking on nuclear strategy also assumed the existence of stable state actors. Among the original nuclear powers, geographic distances and the relatively large size of programs combined with moral revulsion to make surprise attack all but inconceivable. How will these doctrines translate into a region where sponsorship of non-state proxies is common, the state structure is under assault, and death on behalf of jihad is a kind of fulfillment?”