U.S. Strategy after the Iran Deal: Seizing Opportunities and Managing Risks
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The best way to understand how an agreement can successfully prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is to examine Iran’s nuclear strategy. Since the start of the Obama administration, Iran has been within a year’s time of obtaining enough 90 percent highly enriched uranium for a bomb, but has not actually chosen to enrich to that level.1 The final steps necessary to obtain the material are conspicuous and cannot be explained as dual-use activities meant for Iran’s civilian nuclear energy program.2 Any attempt then to pursue this course of action would be quickly noticed, creating a window of vulnerability during which Israel, the United States, or an international coalition could strike the program and set it back. Iran has slowly sought to shrink this window of vulnerability so that should it ever decide to break out, it would be able to do so with less risk. This strategy has entailed bringing on more centrifuges, improving their efficiency, increasing stockpiles of low enriched uranium, and building facilities that are more difficult to attack.
The real measure of any final deal’s effectiveness is whether or not it can reverse Iran’s attempts to expand its nuclear program and set the Iranians far enough away from a nuclear weapon that they will never dare risk pursuing a breakout by taking the final steps necessary to obtain a nuclear weapon. In other words, a deal has to keep the window of vulnerability large enough. If the final agreement is reflective of the White House fact sheet released on April 2, 2015, at the conclusion of the talks in Lausanne, Switzerland, it should be able to successfully lengthen the window of vulnerability to a point where Iran is deterred from pursuing a nuclear weapon for years to come.3
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Most nuclear experts estimate that if Iran were to decide to pursue an overt dash today, it could produce enough highly enriched uranium for one bomb in roughly two to three months.4 In the wake of the Lausanne talks, the Obama adminis- tration stated that Iran has agreed to stretch this timeframe to one year for the first 10 years of an agreement, after which it would start to shrink.5 It is also important to remember that these time estimates assume the Iranians are successful at every step in the process. In reality, there would likely be unexpected delays and challenges that would lengthen the process if Iran sought to build a bomb. These estimates also assume that Iran would pursue only one bomb, which no nuclear state has ever done.6 Instead, to have a credible arsenal Iran would likely need to dash to a small arsenal of perhaps six to eight weapons.
Thus, the parameters negotiated in Lausanne would leave the United States more than enough time to catch the Iranians cheating and build the political consensus for action at home and abroad to take military action. The United States’ ability to mount such a response should deter Iran from ever trying to dash.
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Iran’s second option for a breakout would be a covert sneak out in which it uses an entirely new set of facilities that has not been detected by the IAEA. Such an approach is difficult to carry out and would take a few years.7 Iran has twice tried to build covert enrichment facilities, first Natanz and then Fordow, both of which were detected long before they ever came online.8
The parameters agreed to in Lausanne, which create robust monitoring and verification mechanisms, will make it exceedingly more difficult for Iran to secretly develop covert facilities. Most importantly, the inspections regime will include continuous video monitoring of Iran’s uranium mines and uranium mills for the next 25 years and the monitoring of centrifuge production facilities for 20 years.9 This cradle to grave monitoring of the entire process will force Iran to develop secret alternative sources of uranium and centrifuges if it ever wishes to develop a covert nuclear program – a difficult proposition indeed.10
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After a nuclear deal, Rouhani will have strong politi- cal winds at his back. He will have succeeded in delivering on his promise to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to relieve the devastating sanctions harm- ing Iran’s economy and that could have threatened the regime’s stability. With this success, he may have the Supreme Leader’s support and more lever- age inside the Iranian system to play an increasingly influential role in Iran’s regional policies in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, and wrestle some control away from Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force (IRGC-QF).17 He may also potentially be able to leverage the agreement to make some domestic social reforms – though thus far in his presidency he has failed to exert influence in this arena.18
The Iranian public’s support for Rouhani and his faction could increase substantially, which could translate into greater influence and more seats in the parliament. The agreement’s popularity was appar- ent when, after agreeing on parameters for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Foreign Minister Zarif returned from Lausanne to a hero’s welcome from street protestors.19 Iran is not a democracy, and popular support alone is not enough to shift the internal political balance toward Rouhani, but the population has some influence. The government “vets” all candidates for office, ensuring they are acceptable, and there is a history of manipulating outcomes.20 But popular support matters, as dem- onstrated by Rouhani’s surprise election in 2013 when he received barely over 50 percent of the vote and was allowed to assume the presidency without a runoff – which would have been necessary had he achieved only a plurality – even though his views were not as closely aligned with the Supreme Leader as some of the other candidates.21
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There is also a concern that Iran’s neighbors will react to the agreement by seeking a nuclear capability similar in size and scope to that of Iran. Saudi Arabia has already publicly stated that it may react to a deal by seeking its own domestic enrichment capability and may feel compelled to do so if it thinks that Iran will develop a threshold capability after many of the provisions of the agreement expire in 10–15 years.44 This possibility could be further exacerbated if the Arab states start to question the commitment of the United States to their external security and see the agreement as part of the United States’ strategic reorientation from the Arab states to Iran.
However, there will be a number of impediments that could prevent other regional states from pursuing Iran’s path. It is not easy to build a nuclear weapon. It took Iran years to build its nuclear program, despite having a large and well-educated population.45 Iran has also paid a tremendous cost, including billions of dollars in investment, oner- ous sanctions, and isolation in the international community. Additionally, following an agreement there will be a 10–25 year probationary period where Iran cannot take advantage of the technological and civilian energy applications of nuclear technology. The United States will have significant leverage over these states both in the pressure that it can deploy as their primary security guarantor and the incentives it can offer to dissuade them from fielding an enrichment capability similar to Iran’s. These incentives can range from security guarantees to 1-2-3 agreements that provide robust civilian nuclear programs such as the United Arab Emirates’, which has a much more meaningful economic impact than Iran’s largely symbolic enrichment program.46
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The nuclear agreement could have important positive effects on the global non-proliferation regime if it is successfully implemented over the next 15–25 years and deters Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons. The agreement could become a new model for how to effectively deal with violators. There is a long history of cases in which states have given up the pursuit of a nuclear weapons pro- gram because of external changes to their security environment, internal regime changes, a shift in strategy, military coercion, or simply because the task was too difficult and costly.38 Iran would be a unique instance because of the scale and scope of the international response, the complexity of the negotiations, and the fact that Iran’s regime had not fundamentally changed but was still successfully deterred from obtaining nuclear weapons through a combination of economic pressure and an arms control agreement.
The international process will have worked precisely as intended, with initial concerns being referred by the IAEA Board of Governors to the U.N. Security Council, which imposed sanctions but left the door open for negotiations. These sanc- tions were crafted to ensure maximum leverage on Iran while also maintaining broad international support, and eventually led to a cheater making concessions that prevented it from obtaining a nuclear weapon. The limitations that Iran will have agreed to on its nuclear program could become a model for future violators attempting to rebuild confidence from the international community if they change course, while the cradle to grave con- tinuous monitoring could become a new norm in the non-proliferation regime that perhaps over time all states could be asked to abide by.
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The United States and Iran share common interests in Afghanistan and in fighting ISIS. After the fall of the Taliban, Iran played a helpful role in forming the first Afghan government at the Bonn Conference 2001.26 It has remained an enemy of the Taliban, though it has on occasion engaged in some tactical cooperation out of fear that a long-term U.S. force presence in Afghanistan would threaten Iran’s security. While ambivalent towards President Ashraf Ghani, Iran quietly accepted his presidency.27 With the United States drawing down its forces in Afghanistan, any irritant in the U.S.-Iran relationship on Afghanistan should recede and common interests could trump competition.cnas.org
In Iraq, Iran and the United States share a com- mon interest in fighting ISIS. The IRGC-QF has been active in training Shia militias that have fought ISIS, and at a minimum there has been an effort to tactically de-conflict American and Iranian operations in Iraq, with the Iraqis play- ing the coordinator role.28 American and Iranian officials have also acknowledged that some level of dialogue on this issue has occurred on the sidelines of the nuclear negotiations.29 Though those conversations have been limited for now, they could significantly expand in the aftermath of an agreement.
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The United States should also use a combination of reassurance and dissuasion to ensure that no other regional actors respond to the agreement by achieving their own domestic enrichment capabilities. The United States should be open to offering a nuclear umbrella to the Gulf states if they desire it. This would probably be executed most easily through an executive agreement, as generating political support in the United States for the ratifi- cation of a mutual defense pact with Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates might be too difficult. Any such offer from the United States will have to be carefully choreographed as it could inadvertently backfire by signaling to our regional partners that the United States believes that the nuclear agreement will eventually lead to a nuclear-armed Iran. The United States should send a message to its partners clearly conveying that it is absolutely confident in the nuclear agreement and believes that it will indeed prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, but that if they have anxieties the United States is willing to assuage them. However, it must also make clear that an explicit element of this nuclear guarantee is that these states will not pursue their own independent enrichment capabilities.
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Even as the United States and Iran look for areas of common interest, the United States should signifi- cantly increase its efforts to counter Iran’s regional surrogates and proxies. Such an approach is intended to deter Iranian meddling in the region by signaling to Iran’s leadership, particularly some of the hard- liners and leaders of the IRGC-QF, that Iran is not ascendant in the region and that if it pushes too far it risks a direct conflict with the United States. These actions would also signal to America’s Arab partners, especially Saudi Arabia, that the United States is not abandoning the region to Iran or pursuing the feared “Persian Pivot.”
This means making clear to Iran that even though it might receive sanctions relief through a nuclear deal, it will not be fully welcomed back into the community of nations or receive relief from terrorism-related sanctions until it stops playing a destructive role in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon. The United States might also consider increasing interdictions of Iranian weapons ship- ments, improving intelligence cooperation with its partners, pursuing more aggressive joint covert actions against Iranian supported terrorism, and finding ways to expose Iranian operatives and embarrass Iran when it pursues irresponsible destabilizing policies in the Middle East. The United States has already started to increase its support for such efforts by backing Saudi military operations against the Houthis in Yemen, provid- ing intelligence to enable air strikes, and increasing naval presence to deter Iranian arms shipments.
Once the United States and its partners are able to clearly communicate their determination to Iran, over time they may be able to shift Iran’s calculus and bring it into a political negotiation on how to stabilize the region. But this is not possible as long as Iran’s leaders continue to miscalculate their own strength and perceive themselves as ascendant in the region.
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The deal has the potential to further increase tensions between the United States and Russia by reducing the importance of one of the few areas where Russia and the United States have construc- tively cooperated in recent years. Russian support was essential for passing U.N. Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1929, which became a central component of the international sanctions regime.58 And throughout the nuclear negotiations, the Russians have played a generally supportive role.
With the nuclear issue playing a less prominent role, Russia will be able to increase its cooperation with Iran on regional matters such as support for Bashar al-Assad. Tensions are already increasing; for example, the Russians have announced the controversial sale of S-300 missile systems to Iran, which while not eliminating American or Israeli abilities to militarily threaten Iran’s nuclear facili- ties would certainly complicate any operation.59 This on again and off again sale has been in the works for years and was rescinded by the Russians in 2010 after UNSCR 1929 passed. The Russians have not yet announced a delivery date, and it could be years before the Iranians get the S-300. It is also possible that the threat of the sale is not about Iran at all but is meant as a leverage point for the Russians with the United States, which in the past has expended significant diplomatic capital convincing the Russians to cancel it.