Living with the Consequences: The Effects of Voting Down the Iran Nuclear Agreement
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There will be no better deal if Congress votes down the agreement. All other major powers – Britain, France, Germany, the broader European Union, Russia, China, and the U.N. Security Council – have endorsed this deal and show no interest in negotiating a new one. There is no coalition of nations to renegotiate different terms, and Iran would have little reason to believe that any revised pact would fare any better with the U.S. Congress.
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Congressional rejection of the agreement will empower Iran’s hardliners. The Iranian parliament, which has been every bit as skeptical of the deal as the U.S. Congress, has given itself 80 days to come to a decision and is due to vote their approval or disapproval shortly after the congressional vote. The timing was specifically designed “as a way to avoid losing face by appearing to look weak if the agreement is rejected by their counterparts in the United States,” reports the New York Times.1 IRGC commander Mohammed Ali Jafari flatly rejected the deal, telling reporters, “Some parts of the draft have clearly crossed the Islamic republic's red lines, especially in Iran's military capabilities.”2 If the deal is implemented, the IRGC will be compelled to follow through by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but while the Supreme Leader has given President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif license to negotiate the deal, he has been vague about whether or not he fully supports it. Should the U.S. Congress reject the deal, Iran’s hardliners will be vindicated to vote it down as well.
At this point, with the legislatures of two of the seven parties to the agreement having revoked it, the deal will be dead. At least one critic of the deal who has downplayed the consequences of a congressional “no” vote has suggested that President Obama could still try to implement the deal extralegally pending action by the U.S. Supreme Court and that Iran will use the interim “to exploit our internal squabbles to isolate America from its own negotiating partners.”3 But with Tehran also rejecting the deal, there will be nothing to implement. Iran will not have to try to alienate the United States from its allies – Congress will have already done that. Each of the P5+1 nations have taken political risks in these negotiations, devoting two years of diplomatic effort and setting aside conflicts elsewhere in the world to work through this one specific issue because of its importance and urgency. Despite all odds to the contrary, they managed to reach an accord when they can agree on almost nothing else – only to have it thrown away by the U.S. Congress. They will be livid, and the United States will feel the diplomatic consequences for years to follow.
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In voting down the JCPOA, Congress will mandate the continuation of U.S. sanctions on Iran. It is doubtful that the United Nations will as well. The intent of those sanctions was to compel Iran to reach a negotiated agreement – which, in the world’s eyes, it did until the United States refused to abide by the agreed-upon terms. Many nations will seize on this opportunity to reengage Iran economically. Opposition to the sanctions regime has simmered quietly for more than a decade.5 Even before the announcement of the JCPOA, several critical countries had begun lessening their commitment to the sanctions. Most significant among these is China, the largest importer of Iranian oil: Since reducing its imports by 21% in 2012 after the implementation of U.N. sanctions, China has increased its Iranian oil imports to quantities now greater than before sanctions.6 Germany and France have already announced plans for large trade delegations to renew business ties with Iran, and several East Asian countries are looking to sanctions relief as an opportunity to resume affordable oil imports from Iran.7 European diplomats have consistently warned that the international sanctions regime could unravel if the deal collapses, especially if the fault lies with the United States.8 Congress cannot rely on these nations to ignore their economic interests in Iran because of American intransigence.
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Should the United States try to enforce its unilateral sanctions extraterritorially on foreign companies trying to do business with Iran, it would prompt severe international trade disputes. When the United States enacted U.S. sanctions affecting European businesses operating in Iran in 1996, the “legislation came close to sparking a U.S.-EU trade war.”9 The European Union enacted measures to protect European businesses from U.S. sanctions and nearly took the dispute to the World Trade Organization for deliberation before the United States agreed not to apply the sanctions to certain businesses.10 The continued enforcement of U.S. sanctions in contravention of an international consensus to reopen Iran’s economy would reanimate these trade conflicts and drive new international debates over the appropriate reach of U.S. sanctions.
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As other nations reengage in trade relations with Iran, the United States will lose control of much of Iran’s frozen assets. As Treasury Secretary Jack Lew noted in congressional testimony on July 23, “We have to remember that those reserves are not sitting in the United States. They're sitting around the world, in countries like India and China.”11 Many of these funds are already allocated to oil projects and security deposits in Chinese banks.12 Iranian officials have said that they have tried to work with nations holding Iran’s frozen assets to have them released, but so far those efforts have been fruitless.13 That would likely change as India, China, and Japan reintegrate Iran into the economic system. In other words, if Congress votes down the nuclear agreement, Iran would still receive its economic windfall, and could use it to fund its unconstrained nuclear program.
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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.
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With no deal to implement, Iran will have no credible constraints on its nuclear program. Tehran will be free to curtail the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) access to sensitive nuclear sites. Inspectors would lose the marked gains in access and verification secured in the interim agreement and expanded in the JCPOA, which allow “information and insight into Iran’s nuclear program at a level never previously achieved.”
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This includes monitoring of Iran’s nuclear facilities, centrifuge production, and uranium stockpile at every stage of its use. Under the current freeze on Iran’s nuclear program, Iran has not dismantled its facilities – Tehran has been careful not to take any irreversible steps before the JCPOA is finalized. Without the constraints and incentives of the agreement, Iran would be free to sprint for a bomb – the exact “breakout” scenario that critics of the agreement have warned against for months.
This would require a shift in Iran’s politics, but the collapse of the agreement would almost ensure the success of Iranian hardliners. President Hassan Rouhani has staked his political career on the deal and campaigned on a platform predicated on the economic benefits of negotiating with the United States and its P5+1 partners. As negotiations have been extended, those benefits have been deferred, and even if U.N. sanctions are eased, it could take months or years for the Iranian public to see much effect from economic reintegration.17 With parliamentary elections approaching at the end of 2015, setting the stage for Iran’s next presidential election, it is unlikely that Rouhani’s gamble will pay off in time to recover politically – leaving an opening for more conservative politicians.18 These hardliners will point to hawkish rhetoric in the United States and Israel to justify why they need a nuclear deterrent after all.
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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. "
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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.
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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