Debating the Iran Nuclear Deal
[ Page 25 ]
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.
But even if Iranian leaders, after 15 years or more, believed their national interests were best served by having nuclear weapons, they would run major risks in going forward, with no guarantee of success. Even in the ‘out years,’ the JCPOA’s rigorous monitoring arrangements will remain in force. The world will have gained intimate knowledge of Iran’s nuclear program, which would give the United States prompt warning of any Iranian effort to make a dash for the bomb. Even if breakout time had declined to a few weeks, the United States would likely have sufficient time to intervene militarily to stop them. And during the preceding years, the United States will have pursued more effective intelligence means to discover, and more effective military means to thwart, any Iranian movement toward building the bomb.
It would have been preferable to have permanent or longer-term restrictions on Iran’s enrichment program to preserve a one-year breakout time well beyond 15 years. But preventing a nuclear-armed Iran is possible without longer-lasting restrictions—provided the United States and key partners maintain a strong and credible deterrent against a future Iranian decision to go for the bomb. To that end, current and future U.S. presidents, explicitly supported by Congress, should declare that it is U.S. policy to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and that the United States will use any necessary means, including military force, to enforce that policy.
[ Page 6 ]
Critics argue that, once Iran has gotten that close to the nuclear threshold, it will have a clear path ahead to nuclear weapons and will almost surely embark on that path at a time of its choosing. But it is far from certain that Iran’s leaders—having paid the huge price of devastating sanctions and international isolation for pursuing nuclear weapons—would judge that nuclear arms are a national imperative. Much would depend on how, at the time, they viewed their regional security environment, whether they thought their national aspirations could be met without nuclear weapons, and how they perceived other nations would react to their deceit in violating their international obligations and declared religious principles.
The idea that Iran ultimately may not opt for nuclear weapons is consistent with repeated assessments by the U.S. intelligence community. Since 2007, the intelligence community has judged that, while Iran’s leaders have kept open the option to pursue nuclear weapons, they have not made the decision to do so.
[ Page 11-12 ]
Some analysts argue that, in order to calculate how much time we would have to intervene and thwart an Iranian attempt to break out and build nuclear weapons, we need to know how much progress Iran made in its past weaponization efforts—and that this requires full disclosure by Iran of its past activities. But why would we depend on Iranian accounts of how far they had progressed, especially when they would have incentives to mislead us, most likely to understate how far they had gotten?
From our own sources, we already have considerable knowledge of past Iranian activities—not “absolute knowledge” as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry claimed in a recent misstatement, but a significant amount. Moreover, in calculating the time available to thwart an Iranian breakout attempt, we would have to make the conservative assumption that Iran had made major headway on weaponization, and that going from the production of weapons-grade uranium to the fabrication of a workable nuclear weapon would not be a significant challenge. It is unlikely that anything Iranian scientists might tell the IAEA about activities before 2003 (when dedicated weaponization research is believed to have been suspended) would affect U.S. planning for interrupting an Iranian dash for nuclear weapons.
[ Page 15 ]
Moreover, responding to Iranian violations need not depend on proof gathered by the IAEA on site. While an IAEA inspection that catches Iran red-handed would probably provide the strongest basis for going to the Security Council and re-imposing sanctions, the United States would not need to wait for IAEA confirmation of Iranian cheating. If the United States acquired reliable intelligence of Iranian violations that posed a serious security threat and could be shared with others, the nuclear deal enables Washington to go directly to the Security Council without waiting for IAEA access. Indeed, depending on the scale and time-urgency of the threat, the United States could choose to act on its own to penalize Iran.
Inspections are only one component of the JCPOA’s comprehensive monitoring system. Continuous surveillance of the entire nuclear supply chain, including the prohibition of sensitive imports other than those individually approved and monitored for legitimate purposes, will make it difficult for Iran to pursue an undetected covert enrichment program. To succeed, a covert program requires not just a single clandestine site but a substantial number of effectively hidden facilities and undetected movement of equipment and materials between them. It requires unaccounted-for or successfully diverted supplies of uranium ore, processed uranium, uranium gas, centrifuge components, and facilities designed to produce those supplies. The JCPOA’s layered monitoring system will greatly increase the likelihood of detecting one or more of the necessary elements of a covert program and provide a substantial deterrent to Iranian cheating.
[ Page 28 ]
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.
[ Page 27-28 ]
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.
[ Page 14-15 ]
Supporters of the agreement point out that it would not be possible in 24 days to hide evidence of covert production facilities, such as conversion and enrichment plants or centrifuge manufacturing workshops, or other relatively large objects, such as a high-explosive chamber. Moreover, they maintain that sophisticated environmental sampling technologies would have a good chance of detecting microscopic traces of covert activity if uranium or other nuclear materials were involved, even long after 24 days. And they argue that, as soon as the IAEA requests an inspection, U.S. intelligence assets would focus on the suspect site and be able to identify signs that incriminating cleanup efforts were underway.
The critics are right that removal and cleanup efforts could be successfully completed within 24 days in the case of small-scale illicit activities, especially if no nuclear materials are involved. Moreover, although intelligence assets have in the past detected efforts to sanitize sites—notably at Iran’s Parchin facility—detection of such efforts cannot be counted on in all instances.
In the absence of no-notice, surprise inspections—which have only been achieved in a case like Iraq, where the Security Council was in a position to dictate terms to a defeated country—no inspection system can reliably ensure on-site confirmation of small-scale, non-nuclear activities. Even a system requiring access to be granted in a week or even several days, which some of the critics advocate, could not provide such assurance. The inspection system established under the JCPOA is not perfect, but it is timely enough to prevent the removal or concealment of incriminating evidence of the kind of illicit activities that would be of greatest concern and would most significantly lessen Iran’s breakout time.
[ Page 19 ]
Even after the renewed Security Council restrictions expire, the United States will have other legal authorities and policy tools to address Iranian arms transfers to its proxies and imports of sensitive technologies. Existing U.N. embargoes on transfers to Hezbollah, the Yemeni Houthis, and Shiite militants in Iraq require U.N. members to prevent prohibited transfers from or through their territory. Other available policy tools include the Proliferation Security Initiative which facilitates international cooperation in interdicting illicit transfers, U.S. sanctions laws which target certain Iranian conventional arms and missile activities, and the Missile Technology Control Regime which coordinates the missile export policies of the major missile supplying governments, including Russia.
[ Page 22 ]
The most effective U.S. response to the risks posed by the released assets is not to scuttle the deal or to try to re-negotiate a phased or substantially delayed release which, given the priority the Iranians attached to early recovery of the funds, would have little chance of success. Instead, Washington should work with its partners to counter Iranian provocations. That means stepping up interdictions of illicit arms shipments, strengthening counter-terrorism efforts (including impeding and sanctioning terrorism financing), building up the capacities of America’s friends, and in general demonstrating U.S. resolve to play a strong leadership role in the region, including opposing Tehran’s aggressive regional designs.
Critics of the nuclear deal are correct that nothing in the JCPOA prevents Iran from continuing to engage in destabilizing regional behavior. By the same token, nothing prevents the United States and its partners from countering that behavior, including by imposing sanctions not removed by the JCPOA and by employing a wide range of available policy tools to counter terrorism and illicit arms trafficking. Moreover, while the released assets will put additional resources at Tehran’s disposal, those funds are much more than offset by the substantially greater resources that the United States and its Gulf Arab partners can bring to bear to address the regional challenges posed by Iran.
At the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Secretary Lew stated that the United States “will aggressively target any attempts by Iran to use funds gained from sanctions relief to support militant proxies.” U.S. partners in the region will be watching closely to see if Washington follows through on that pledge,