Time to Get Tough on Tehran Iran Policy After the Deal
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Supporters of the deal point to the economic exigencies that com- pelled Tehran to agree to it, but Tehran was also motivated by the scientific imperatives of building nuclear weapons. For much of its existence, Iran's nuclear program was subject to sabotage and sanctions and relied on primitive centrifuges. As Hamid Baeidinejad, one of Iran's lead negotiators, has admitted, the Iranian scientific establishment appreciated that a reliable industrial-size nuclear program required advanced centrifuges, ones that operated as much as 20 times as fast as the primitive ones. And Iranian officials understood the need to shield their program from sabotage and possible military retribution. The prob- lem was that it would take approximately eight to ten years to introduce the new generation of centrifuges. So the challenge for Iran's diplomats was to legitimize the nuclear program while negotiating a research-and- development schedule that fulfilled the scientists' requirements.
The final agreement met these needs. The JCPOA allows Iran to develop advanced centrifuges and begin installing them in the eighth year of the agreement. Thus, not only did Iran get the sanctions removed and its nuclear program legitimized; it also obtained the timeline it needed for the mass production of advanced centrifuges. Indeed, in highlighting the achievements of his negotiators, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani emphasized "the development of new centrifuges-from concept to mass production." So fast and efficient are the new generation of centrifuges that Iran could easily build a small facility producing weapons-grade uranium that would evade detection. And once Iran is in possession of weapons-grade uranium, it will also have a fleet of reliable ballistic missiles at hand.
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A regime as dangerous to U.S. interests as Tehran requires a compre- hensive strategy to counter it. That means exploiting all of Iran's vulnerabilities: increasing the costs of its foreign adventures, weakening its economy, and backing its domestic discontents. Pursuing that strategy will take time, but eventually, it will put the United States in a position to impose terms on Iran, including in the nuclear realm. Washington should strive for a stringent arms control agreement, not one that presages an Iranian bomb. It should compel Iran to cease much of its regional subversion, not create power vacuums that encourage it. And it should move human rights up the agenda, not look the other way as Iran's leaders oppress their people.
Some in Washington believe that the Iran problem is of secondary importance to the United States compared with violent jihadist groups such as isis. Not so. For all their achievements in the chaotic lands of Syria and western Iraq, those radical movements do not yet possess the resources and capabilities of a large, sophisticated state. Iran does. Remember, the Iranian regime was the original Islamic revolutionary state. Its successes inspired a wave of radicals across the Middle East.
At its most basic level, the confrontation between the United States and Iran is a conflict between the world's sole superpower and a second-rate autocracy. Washington does not need to settle for a disas- trously flawed arms control agreement and hope that theocrats with no interest in relaxing their grip will somehow become moderates. A determined policy of pressure would speed the day when the Iranian people replace a regime that has made their lives miserable. And in the interim, it would reduce the threat that a triumphant, nuclear- armed regime would pose to the Middle East and the world beyond.
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Supporters of the JCPOA suggest that Iran will never agree to such revisions. But nations do end up negotiating agreements that once seemed impossible. During arms control negotiations with the Soviets in the early 1980s, the commentariat blasted Reagan as naive for insisting that the Soviet Union remove all its intermediate-range missiles from Europe. And yet in 1987, Moscow did exactly that. Facing grave internal problems, the Soviets had little choice but to negotiate; the same should hold true for Iran today, especially with greater pres- sure from and patience on the part of the United States.
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According to the Obama administration, any attempt to revisit the JCPOA's procedures would spark an international outcry, isolating the United States from its allies. Such overwrought claims ignore the fact that the JCPOA is not a legally binding treaty but a voluntary political agreement. Moreover, the JCPOA commands the support of neither the American public nor its elected representatives in Congress. A new president can and should reconsider it.
Admittedly, U.S. allies might not be so eager to revise the JCPOA. The product of a painstaking multilateral effort, the agreement has the unanimous support of the UN Security Council. Still, most of Wash- ington's Middle Eastern allies would welcome changes. Israel opposes the deal, and Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia have made it clear that their support for the JCPOA is tepid at best and largely an effort to please the Obama administration.
France, Germany, and the United Kingdom will prove harder to convince. The next president should make it clear to these allies that he or she is prepared to negotiate with Iran but intends to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear capability. In private, U.S. diplomats should convey the message that the way that European countries react to amendments to the JCPOA will affect their relations with the United States. A determined president could mobilize the international community behind a set of demands that would measurably strengthen the agreement and broaden its bipartisan appeal at home.