After several years of difficult negotiations with a dangerous and malevolent regime, the administration and the representatives of the other P5+1 nations reached an agreement with Iran over its nuclear program. The deal realistically precludes Iran from developing an atomic bomb for fifteen or more years, and does so while reducing the chances of war. As one would expect in any negotiation with a bitter adversary, there are elements of the deal that turned out quite well -- in this case, America's unilateral ability to snap back the whole range of sanctions in the event of Iranian noncompliance, and the intrusive nature of inspections into Iran. And there are other elements of the deal that are concerning, even deeply concerning -- lack of robust access to the sites of Iran's past military work on nuclear weapons, and the permissible scope of Iran's enrichment program after only fifteen years. In the absence of a credible alternative, Congress should accept the deal and work with the administration to strengthen its impact, while joining forces with our allies to better contain Iran's conventional capabilities and nefarious conduct in the region and beyond.
The primary objective of the United States in the negotiations was to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Given the unthinkable consequences of Iran, the world's foremost sponsor of terrorism, obtaining the bomb, this has been an overriding national security imperative of the United States for decades. As an American and as a Jew who is deeply concerned about the security of Israel, it is also intensely personal. I believe our vital interests have been advanced under the agreement, since it would be extremely difficult for Iran to amass enough fissionable material to make a nuclear weapon without giving the United States ample notice and time to stop it. We will still need to guard against any Iranian effort to obtain nuclear material or technology from proliferators abroad -- a reality even if they had given up all enrichment -- but the agreement likely gives the world at least a decade and a half without the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon and without going to war to make that so. That is a major achievement.
The United States realized this objective by securing a number of important provisions in the agreement, including the power to snap back sanctions in whole or in part, and not subject to a veto in the United Nations. Over the past two decades, Iran has consistently and repeatedly cheated in its agreements with the IAEA. This cheating has taken many forms, including the construction of hidden enrichment facilities, some deep underground, as well as work to develop the technologies necessary to detonate a nuclear weapon. At the outset of the negotiations, Iran's goal was to have the power to delay and obfuscate if caught, and to count on friendly nations (Russia) or nations deeply interested in its oil resources (China) to veto the re-imposition of sanctions. But Iran failed, and the snapback mechanism provides the best guarantor of Iranian compliance.
The United States and its allies also procured an extensive and intrusive inspections regime that lasts for twenty-five years. By applying to the whole chain of the enrichment process, from the ground to the centrifuge, it realistically precludes Iran from developing a hidden and parallel enrichment process. As a practical matter, given our intelligence capabilities and this inspection regime, the deal should prevent Iran from developing a bomb for the duration of the agreement. If Iran cheats, it is likely to do so in areas that do not involve nuclear material, such as work on nuclear weaponization and other research and development that are more easily hidden during the twenty-four days it is allowed to play "rope-a-dope" with inspectors. Here it will be important for Congress, the administration and our allies to make clear that any cheating will be severely penalized and result in the re-imposition of some, if not all, of the original sanctions -- Iran will not be allowed to merely cease the offending conduct.
With respect to the possible military dimensions of Iran's nuclear program (PMDs), the United States does not appear to have obtained the more robust access to military sites that we sought, but this is mitigated by the fact that the IAEA and U.S. already have considerable intelligence about the type of work that Iran has done to construct, deliver and detonate an atomic bomb. No one expects Iran or its scientists to be the least bit forthcoming about Iran's past weaponization work. To the degree that we need a baseline to estimate how long it would take Iran to dash to a bomb, however, our intelligence already provides a good basis for calculations even without Iran coming clean on its PMD.
The most troubling part of the agreement for me is therefore not those parts that have generated the most discussion or criticism from opponents -- the sanctions, inspections or PMD -- but the size, sophistication and international legitimacy of Iran's enrichment capability allowed in only fifteen years. At the outset of negotiations, it was hoped that if it was necessary to grant Iran an enrichment capability at all, it would only be a token one, and that apart from a small research facility, fuel for its reactors might be stored or produced outside the country. Instead, while approximately 13,000 centrifuges will be removed from operation, the agreement allows Iran to operate over 5,000 centrifuges and, eventually, to bring on line a faster set of instruments that reduce the time necessary to create enough fissionable material for a bomb down to a matter of weeks.
It is important to understand that even after fifteen years -- or fifty for that matter -- as a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Iran is never allowed to develop the bomb. And it is certainly true that as a result of the agreement, we will have inspectors watching the enrichment process that we wouldn't have otherwise. But at the end of fifteen years, Iran will have few constraints on the speed of its enrichment, and at that point it is the work necessary to produce the mechanism for the bomb that becomes the real obstacle to a breakout -- and that work is among the most difficult to detect.
While much of the focus has been on the tradeoff between sanctions relief and limits on Iran's nuclear program, the real painful heart of the agreement lies elsewhere -- Iran is meaningfully prevented from developing atomic weapons for at least fifteen years, but it is left with a robust and internationally legitimized enrichment capability. I have searched for a better, credible alternative and concluded that there is none.
Some opponents of the deal have argued that in the event Congress rejects the agreement, Iran has so much to gain from it that it will continue to comply even in the face of sustained American sanctions. Given hard-liner Iranian opposition to the deal, the regime's revolutionary ideology, and the opportunity this would provide the mullahs to continue playing victim, this hardly seems plausible. Other opponents attempt to make the case that if we reject the deal, Iran will too, but America can somehow rebuild international support for sanctions and force Iran to come back to the table ready to concede its enrichment program.
When it comes to predicting the future, we are all looking through the glass darkly, but it is only prudent to expect that if Congress rejects a deal agreed to by the administration and much of the world, the sanctions regime will -- if not collapse -- almost certainly erode. Even if we could miraculously keep Europe on board with sanctions, it is hard to imagine Russia, China, India or other nations starved for oil or commerce, agreeing to cut off business with Iran. The use of American financial sanctions is a powerful and coercive force, but relies upon at least the tacit acceptance of our objectives, something that would be lacking if we reject a deal agreed to by the other major powers. A diminished or collapsed sanctions regime does not mean, as some have suggested, that Iran necessarily dashes madly for a bomb, but it will almost certainly move forward with its enrichment program unconstrained by inspections, limits on research and development of new centrifuges, metallurgy and other protections of the deal. In short, Iran will have many of the advantages of the deal in access to money and trade, with none of its disadvantages.
Instead of rejecting the deal, therefore, Congress should focus on making it stronger.
• First, we should make it clear that if Iran cheats, the repercussions will be severe.
• Second, we should continue to strengthen our intelligence capabilities to detect the mostly likely forms of Iranian noncompliance.
• Third, we should establish the expectation that while Iran will be permitted to have an enrichment capability for civilian use, it will never be permitted to produce highly enriched uranium. Not now, not after fifteen years, not ever. If it does so, that will be construed as demonstrating a clear intent to develop the bomb and it will be stopped with force.
• Fourth, if Iran - a nation which has threatened Israel's existence - develops methods of shielding its nuclear facilities from aerial attack by the importation of missile defense systems or further burying its nuclear work, we will share with Israel all the technologies necessary to defeat those systems and destroy its facilities no matter how deep the bunker.
• And fifth, we are prepared to work with Israel and our Gulf allies to make sure that every action Iran takes to use its newfound wealth for destructive activities in the region will prompt an equal and opposite reaction, and the nuclear deal will only reinforce our willingness to combat Iran's conventional and malignant influence.
The Iranian people will one day throw off the shackles of their repressive regime, and I hope that this deal will empower those who wish to reform Iranian governance and behavior. The fifteen years or more this agreement provides will give us the time to test that proposition, without Iran developing the bomb and without the necessity of protracted military action. Then, as now, if Iran is determined to go nuclear, there is only one way to stop it and that is by the use of force. But then at least, the American people and others around the world will recognize that we did everything possible to avoid war.