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.
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.
Here is how rejection would play out.
First, our allies would desert us. This is not just an agreement struck between the United States and Iran. It is a deal negotiated over two years by the world powers. America led the way, but Russia, China, the conservative governments of Britain, France and Germany, and the entire European Union were equal partners. Everyone had to agree on every term or there would have been no deal.
Opponents spin fanciful notions of a "better deal" with tougher terms, bigger sticks. This is nonsense. Our European partners have already told us that it is this option or nothing. If Congress blocks the deal, no nation, least of all Iran, will believe that the United States is capable of making and keeping a new agreement. U.S. credibility would collapse faster than the Chinese stock market.
The sanctions regime would then unravel. The U.S. persuaded most of the world to curtail their trade and financing with Iran because we presented a feasible path to a diplomatic solution. Take away diplomacy and the sanctions cannot hold. Any new ones passed by Congress would be feckless.
With diplomacy over, sanctions withering and the hard-liners in ascendancy, Iran's nuclear program would come back with a vengeance.
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.
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