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.
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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
Allies also might lose faith. Throughout the long-simmering nuclear crisis with North Korea, the Bush and Obama administrations managed to preserve solidarity with South Korea and Japan. Going forward, any sustainable solution to this crisis will require implementation of a joint U.S.-South Korea strategy backed by Japan. Moon Jae-In, South Korea’s newly elected president, is a strong proponent of engagement with the North, and both Seoul and Tokyo are desperate to contain the North’s nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities. It’s hardly an exaggeration to suggest that both would be apoplectic if, by repudiating the nuclear accord with Iran, the U.S. effectively cut off the path to a diplomatic solution on the peninsula.
The odds against a negotiated agreement with North Korea are preternaturally long, but it would be the height of irresponsibility not to test its possibility. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently offered the welcome suggestion that the U.S. is open to diplomacy and reassurance to Pyongyang that the U.S. is not intent on regime change. Surely, both he and others in the administration—Generals James Mattis, H.R. McMaster and John Kelly in particular, all of whom reportedly lobbied for Trump to certify Iranian compliance with the nuclear accord the last time around—understand how hollow those words will ring if, the next time certification is in play, they fail to persuade the president. The least one can hope is that they will see the linkage, because it’s a pretty good bet that this president won’t. And it’s just as good a bet that, by failing to peek just around the corner, he would be creating the prospect of a two-front nuclear crisis that America and the world can ill afford.
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The most important of the JPOA’s interim sanctions-relief measures involves the purchase of Iranian crude oil. Starting in 2012, U.S. oil sanctions compelled key countries purchasing Iranian crude to make significant cuts in their imports every six months. Under the JPOA, those countries were allowed to freeze reductions at already-reduced levels without risking sanctions. The end of JPOA sanctions relief under the INARA would mean that the administration would be required to impose sanctions on countries importing Iranian crude oil if they did not make significant additional reductions over the next six months. The countries that would be affected would include China, India, Japan, South Korea, and Turkey.
The key would be China, the largest purchaser of Iranian crude, which reluctantly made major cuts in imports to provide leverage for diplomacy. Convinced that the United States walked away from an effective solution to the nuclear problem, Beijing might simply ignore the re-imposition of U.S. oil sanctions and refuse to make further cuts, forcing the United States to choose between not imposing sanctions (and exposing them as a paper tiger) or imposing them and risking a major confrontation with China. And even if the U.S. chose the more confrontational course, China could possibly find workarounds, creating new banks and companies to bear the brunt of sanctions for facilitating oil purchases, while insulating major Chinese entities from the reach of U.S. sanctions and proceeding to increase purchases.
A less likely possibility is that the Chinese, wishing to avoid a confrontation with the United States and able to find alternative suppliers in today’s well-supplied oil market, might decide to go along with the re-imposed sanctions. But instead of making the significant additional reductions required by U.S. sanctions law (roughly 20 percent additional cuts over six months), it might proffer a token reduction (e.g., a few percent), counting on the United States to regard that as sufficient not to trigger sanctions rather than precipitate a confrontation.
To avoid commercial disadvantage, India, Japan, and South Korea have been willing since 2012 to reduce crude oil purchases only as long as China was doing so. Following the rejection of the nuclear deal, they could be expected to follow Beijing’s lead, either making token reductions of their own or ignoring the re-imposition of sanctions in the expectation that Washington would not pick a major fight with a united front of regional powers and trading partners.
First of all, the possibility of an Israeli military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities goes up considerably. The Israelis would claim that, having restrained themselves for years while the talks were ongoing, they now had the moral right and strategic imperative to act. It is possible that Israel has been bluffing all along  to try to get the United States and international community to act— or that its last realistic window of opportunity to bomb Iran was in 2010-2012 before the deeply buried Fordow nuclear facility became operational rendering an Israeli air strike ineffective.
However, it is also quite possible that lacking a large enough air force for a comprehensive campaign, the Israelis will launch a less ambitious set of strikes, in order to set the Iranian nuclear program back a few years while leaving Iran’s conventional naval and missile capabilities intact.Iran might retaliate proportionally with missile strikes against Israel and using its global network of proxies to launch terrorist attacks against Israeli and possibly American targets.Or Iran could go further, believing that the United States was complicit in the attack and respond conventionally against American naval assets and forces deployed on the Arabian Peninsula, forcing the United States to finish the job through a military campaign lasting weeks against Iran: something that would be worse for Iran than the United States, but that to say the least, we should all want to avoid.
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How would the Iranians react to congressional rejection of the JCPOA and U.S. efforts to strengthen sanctions? Some engagement-minded Iranians might recommend taking the “high road”—let the Americans shoot themselves in the foot; maintain the interim accord’s nuclear freeze and enhanced monitoring measures without initiating the nuclear and monitoring steps required by the final deal; launch a worldwide campaign to blame the United States for the collapse of the diplomatic effort; and plan for increasing nuclear capacity at a time when Iran would escape any criticism for doing so.
However, such an Iranian reaction is very unlikely. With the United States resuming sanctions that had been suspended during the negotiations and the U.S. president legally barred from implementing the comprehensive sanctions relief that was Iran’s main reason for reaching the nuclear deal, there is little chance of Tehran opting for the high road. Spurred on by domestic opponents of the nuclear deal, the supreme leader could be expected to retaliate against congressional action by forbidding steps to implement the JCPOA and authorizing the resumption of nuclear activities suspended under the JPOA.
To win over international opinion and encourage the erosion of international sanctions, Iran might initially see advantage in only a gradual increase in nuclear activities—testing advanced centrifuges but not increasing the number of operating centrifuges, resuming the construction of the originally designed Arak reactor, suspending the conversion of enriched uranium hexafluoride to oxide, discontinuing the JPOA’s enhanced monitoring measures, and so on.
However, as time passed and the Iranians saw the United States actively seeking to retain and expand sanctions, nuclear self-restraint would become less and less politically tenable and Iran’s nuclear capabilities would grow. Even then, the Iranians might well be reluctant to boost their capabilities at a rate that would cause alarm and provide a justification for new sanctions or the consideration of military options.
There’s a good deal to be had. The opportunity must not be squandered. The deal is not yet in place but enormous obstacles have already been overcome since secret U.S.-Iranian talks began and a productive Washington-Tehran relationship was established for the first time since 1979.
The outstanding issues include unfettered access for International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to all Iranian sites, including military sites; the sequencing of sanctions lifting; the permitted scope of Iranian nuclear research; and the fate of the arms embargo on Iran. Of these, the first is the most intractable. Obama cannot settle for less than unambiguous Iranian acquiescence to full site access. On the Iranian side, only the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, can grant that. He has said he won’t. Then again, he has said many things and talks have proceeded. Khamenei knows how much the vast majority of Iranians want this door-opening accord, and how critical it is to a battered economy. His absolute power does not make him politically immune.
Both sides probably have a few weeks to play with. But to imagine the interim deal will hold, absent a final accord, is folly. America’s coalition will fray; Russia and China will start the blame game; Iran will eventually start installing new centrifuges again; the politics of Iran and the United States will shift; Israel will take its brinkmanship an inch or two further; and the hooded, throat-slitting barbarians of Islamic State — enemies of Shiite Iran and the United States — will advance, kill and plunder, relieved of the one conceivable effective coalition to confront them.
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Until now, the United States has had the strong support of the European Union and European governments in enforcing sanctions. But in the wake of U.S. rejection of an agreement that European governments strongly support, European authorities may be less resolute in cracking down on sanctions evaders.
In an effort to hold the line on existing sanctions, the United States would need to pursue a vigorous worldwide campaign to penalize sanctions busters, threatening and imposing sanctions even on close allies and trading partners. And as the ranks of sanctions evaders grew and as the defectors came to believe there was strength in numbers, such a campaign could become increasingly confrontational, futile, and self-defeating, especially if the sanctioned entities had substantial economic links to the United States.
The first and most dangerous scenario is that Tehran could break out of the interim nuclear agreement, the Joint Plan of Action, which has essentially frozen Iran’s nuclear program for nearly two years. With no promise of lasting and more significant sanctions relief, Iran may decide to resume its nuclear enrichment program at levels that reduce the time it would need to weaponize its nuclear program. Iran could still remain in the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty and come dangerously close to developing the capabilities to quickly break out if there is no international agreement placing further restrictions and inspections on its activities.
To make matters worse, unless it is clear that Iran is at fault for the breakdown in nuclear talks, the current broad international support for sanctions against Iran could weaken. U.S. sanctions against Iran have proven effective because of the backing they have garnered among key oil-importing countries such as China, India, South Korea, and Japan. International sanctions have, by some estimates, cut Iran’s oil exports by more than half in recent years, costing Iran up to $40 billion in revenue annually. Continued unilateral American sanctions and secondary U.S. sanctions on countries and institutions doing business with Iran following the breakdown of a deal would likely continue to keep U.S. and European companies away from Iran. But other key international powers, and even some in Europe, may tire of self-imposed restrictions, especially if Iran appeared to have negotiated in good faith. So, Iran could find itself less isolated over time, especially if Congress rejected the deal, leaving the United States to blame for the failure. Indeed, this is the worst-of-both-worlds outcome—few constraints on Iran’s nuclear program and dissipating international pressure on Iran.
[Here is how rejection would play out.] Hard-liners in Iran would also reassert their dominance. If you liked the Iranian government led by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, you are going to love the new one that would sweep into office once the centrist government of Hassan Rouhani is thrown out in disgrace. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, would announce that he was right not to trust the Americans. The hopes of the young, educated population for a new chance at reform would be crushed.
These conditions almost certainly would lead to a renewed Iranian nuclear program. For 10 years, as sanctions and the threat of military force grew, so did the number of Iranian centrifuges. It was only diplomacy that halted and then rolled back the program. With diplomacy over, sanctions withering and the hard-liners in ascendancy, Iran's nuclear program would come back with a vengeance. In short order, the Iranians could have tens of thousands of centrifuges enriching tons of uranium. They would be able to make enough for multiple bombs within days, not the full year the deal provides before they could make enough material for just one bomb.
Of course, the deal is a compromise. Iran would be left with a substantial nuclear capability, and inspections would not by any means be “anytime, anywhere.” The limits on Iran’s uranium stocks and enrichment capacity would eventually expire, allowing Iran to increase its capabilities in the future. In essence, the deal buys time – time that should be used to enmesh Iran’s nuclear activities in a web of cooperation, giving the world deeper insight into its nuclear activities and plans and ensuring that any move toward the bomb would be quickly detected.
What are the plausible alternatives? One option would be to reject the deal and try to strengthen sanctions in the hope of pressuring Iran to accept still tighter restraints. Such an approach might work – but the risks are high. Without a deal, Iran would be able to build more centrifuges, fully test its more advanced machines (giving it a faster and easier-to-hide enrichment option), and build up its stock of low-enriched uranium. If the world saw that it was the United States that had walked away from a reasonable deal, it would be very difficult to keep key parts of the sanctions regime from unraveling. We could end up with more dangerous Iranian nuclear capabilities and weaker sanctions tools to push them back. In the end, that might lead to only two options – living with Iran within weeks of producing the material for a bomb, or launching military strikes.
The author argues that if the Trump administration follows through with its consistent threats to pull out of the nuclear deal with Iran, it will "ultimately result in American interests being taken into account last in global decision-making bodies."
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If the Trump administration makes good on its threat to pull out of the Iranian nuclear deal, the fallout will spread to North Korea where the possibility of any kind of diplomatic solution, which most experts see as the only viable path, will evaporate.
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Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Thursday it was in the interest of the United States to remain committed to a multilateral nuclear treaty.
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The director of the C.I.A. has issued a stark warning to President-elect Donald J. Trump: Tearing up the Iran nuclear deal would be “the height of folly” and “disastrous.”
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As the reality of Donald Trump's White House win sinks in among nuclear deal opponents, some are insisting that pulling out of the agreement is unwise. Instead, they say, Trump should step up enforcement of the deal, look for ways to renegotiate it, and pursue measures to punish Iran for its non-nuclear misbehavior. Such a multi-pronged, get-tough approach may even give Trump cover to fend off any criticism he may get for keeping the 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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