Testimony of Ilan Goldenberg: Implications of a Nuclear Agreement with Iran (Part III) July 23, 2015
[ Page 2 ]
Of course, the agreement is far from perfect as no tough international negotiation yields a deal that is completely satisfactory to all sides. Perhaps the greatest weakness of the agreement is that some of the constraints on Iran’s nuclear activities are lifted after 10–15 years, particularly with regards to its centrifuge capacity and ability to conduct research and development on next-generation centrifuges. Opponents will rightfully argue that there is a danger that this agreement leaves in place the potential for Iran to become a nuclear threshold state in 15 years and it is certainly true that permanent restrictions would have been more effective.
The good news is that the agreement still leaves in place a number of sufficient checks that last longer than 15 years. Most important, the key elements of the inspections regime, including the Additional Protocol, remain in place forever or for 25 years, giving the United States and its partners unprecedented visibility into Iran’s nuclear program. Iran is also forbidden from ever pursuing any research and development activities that could contribute to the development of a nuclear explosive device, including uranium or plutonium metallurgy activities. Through the joint oversight mechanism the United States will have the ability to gain visibility into Iran’s research and development plans and block any changes Iran proposes that the United States find unacceptable.
[ Page 3 ]
It is also important to note that there is no other option that could ensure that for the next 15 years Iran will not have nuclear weapons, including military strikes. And 15 years is a long time in the unpredictable and unstable Middle East. In a region facing so many other problems, dramatically restricting Iran’s nuclear program for 15 years is certainly a notable achievement. If 15 years from now Iran chooses to violate the agreement or does not appear to be pursuing a credible civilian nuclear energy program, the same diplomatic, economic, and military options will be available to the United States and its partners.
[ Page 3-4 ]
While the agreement is not ideal, it is far superior to the alternatives that have been posited. Opponents argue that the United States should have held out, imposed tougher sanctions, and reached a better deal that eliminated Iran’s nuclear capabilities. But the reality is that the United States and its partners already tried that approach and it failed.
Between 2003 and 2005 Iran suspended its nuclear program and entered negotiations with France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. At the time, Iran had a nascent program with 164 centrifuges and was willing to accept an agreement similar to the one that proponents of a better deal today extol. But rather than take that agreement, the parties walked away.
Afterwards, the United States and its partners began the effort to increase economic pressure on Iran, levying multiple Security Council resolutions and building out a robust international sanctions regime. Iran responded by increasing the size of its nuclear program, building 20,000 centrifuges and changing facts on the ground – all of which occurred under sanctions pressure. At the time of President Rouhani’s election in 2013 Iran’s breakout time to a bomb’s worth of highly enriched uranium had decreased to only two to three months. At that point, the President Obama had a choice either to seize the opportunity for an opening and freeze Iran’s nuclear program through the Joint Plan of Action or continue to apply pressure. If the United States had continued to apply pressure and gone for a “better deal,” Iran would have continued to build out its program. By now, Iran’s economy would have been even more devastated, but it also would be only weeks away from a bomb. And the United States would be faced with the very real dilemma of pursuing military action or allowing Iran to achieve a virtual nuclear capability.
[ Page 4-5 ]
In reality, the internal struggle will likely take years to play out. Iran’s March 2016 parliamentary elections may be an early indicator, but the most important moment may not come until the Supreme Leader, who is 75 years old and is said to not be in good health, passes away. The Assembly of Experts, an elected body of clerics, is charged with appointing the Supreme Leader, but given the changes in the Islamic Republic in the 25 years since the last succession, it is uncertain precisely how the new leader may be chosen. It is not even clear if the Supreme Leader will be an individual or a committee, and how much power the office will retain relative to the other key centers of power. The outcome of the succession process is likely to be a crucial moment in the history of the Islamic Republic and a strong indicator of whether the regime is moderating and becoming more pragmatic or whether the hardliners are winning the internal battle.
[ Page 7 ]
Even as they express their concerns about the nuclear agreement and the policies of the Obama administration, many in the security establishment in Israel are uncomfortable with the public confrontational approach taken by Prime Minister Netanyahu in opposing the agreement. There is a widely held view among Israeli security professionals that the best way for the United States and Israel to work out their differences through private consultations in which Israel could shape and influence American thinking and try to improve the contents of the agreement. Instead, by pursuing this direct confrontation and trying to use Congress to undercut the deal, the prime Minister has turned support for Israel – a traditionally bipartisan issue – into a politically contentious wedge issue that has forced Democratic legislators to choose between the president and leader of their party and the prime minister of Israel.
The good news is that even as political tensions have risen, security cooperation has remained strong. The United States continues to provide billions in security assistance to Israel, including support for the Iron Dome System anti-rocket system, which dramatically improved the security of Israel’s population in recent years. In the immediate aftermath of the agreement the Prime Minister is likely to continue to strongly oppose an agreement both publicly and privately. However, once the political confrontation has ended, many in both the United States and Israel hope that relations can begin to improve and that the two traditional partners can return to operating as they used to.
[ Page 9 ]
The United States should find ways to signal to its regional partners that it remains committed to their security. It is still important to maintain a robust conventional military presence in the Middle East after an agreement to deter Iran from aggressively pursuing its destabilizing activities in the region, violating the nuclear agreement and threatening freedom of navigation and the flow of energy resources. Despite the regional focus on the unconventional Iranian threat, a conventional presence will also reassure partners that the United States remains committed to their security. Providing the Arab states greater confidence in American commitments will be a useful tool for dissuading them from lashing out more aggressively at Iran in ways that may exacerbate the sectarian divide. It could also reduce the likelihood that the Arab states would pursue their own domestic enrichment capability in response to Iran. In pursuing this approach, the United States will have to maintain a careful balance. A major influx of U.S. assets to the region could be provocative, undermine both Iran’s confidence in the agreement and American intentions, and reduce the likelihood of increased cooperation over time. But any significant withdrawal of assets would shake the confidence of both the Arab states and Israel. The guiding principle should be to maintain an American force posture that is essentially the same or slightly enhanced. The United States could consider forward stationing a limited number of more advanced manned and unmanned aircraft and missile defense assets in the region, but should not go too far beyond that. If the agreement takes hold and over time Iran’s behavior moderates, there is the potential for a “peace dividend” in the long term.