To assess the potential contribution of the Iranian nuclear agreement to U.S. national security, we should consider its major components and both its short and longer-term implications for American interests and those of our friends and allies.
It is also important to be clear about what the agreement does not do and was not intended to achieve to judge the diplomatic accomplishment squarely on its own merits. No arrangement, save for one imposed by one party upon another, is going to be viewed as perfect. The compromises developed through the course of complex negotiations are unlikely to provide parties with their most desired outcomes. Despite its limitations, the Iranian nuclear deal seems to achieve the primary objectives of the United States and thus warrants support.
The Core of the Agreement
First and foremost, the nuclear agreement effectively ends or "blocks the path" to an Iranian nuclear weapon in the short-term. There are two ways in which a nation can achieve the material for construction of a nuclear weapon: the enrichment of uranium ore to "weapon's grade" levels through the employment of centrifuges, or the utilization of plutonium. The agreement addresses both of these approaches by forcing Iran to relinquish its current stockpile of enriched uranium and to break down and reconfigure the facilities designed for plutonium extraction.
These two critical parts of the agreement move Iran back from being a "threshold" nuclear weapon state and remove the potential for a "break out" that would allow the regime to construct a small number of usable weapons within a period of months. In short, Tehran is agreeing to put a nuclear weapon out of its reach in the short-term.
Second, by decreasing its stocks of uranium and eliminating over two thirds of its existing centrifuges, as well as the associated support infrastructure, Iran has agreed to place major obstacles in its path to the development of nuclear weapons in the medium and longer-terms. Moreover, with the highly intrusive, technically advanced and broadly comprehensive inspection and verification regime that will be imposed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran has essentially surrendered control and oversight of all of its civilian nuclear infrastructure to the international community.
Critics have been right to point to undeclared "problem" sites that may be covertly engaged in military activities, but the information gleaned from IAEA sources on the ground throughout the country will make the impact and effect of such possible sites difficult to exploit. More importantly, the ability of the IAEA to demand access to problem sites and the constant threat of sanctions being reimposed by the United States and its partners (without the need for China or Russia to sign off) serves as a real deterrent to possible diversion or deception.
In return for its submission to program constraints, monitoring and verification, as well as additional limitations to its capacity to acquire arms and ballistic missile technology, Tehran receives relief from painful sanctions associated with its nuclear program. Iranian funds frozen under the existing United Nations nuclear sanctions will be made available, while international investment and financial activity will gradually expand.
However, given Tehran's support for Hezbollah, Hamas, the Assad regime in Syria, Shia militias in Iraq, and Houthi rebels in Yemen, critics are legitimately concerned that new resources will be channeled to these proxies, to the detriment of U.S. allies like Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. This represents a real challenge that the United States and its allies must address. At the same time, however, there is a major appetite within Iranian society to escape from the pain and poverty of the biting sanctions regime and invest in domestic economic priorities. Iranian leaders will likely be forced to manage domestic political expectations along with their regional ambitions.
The Limits of the Agreement
It is also important to understand what this agreement does not do. Basic research and peaceful nuclear activities will be allowed to continue under the agreement, though under a strict system of IAEA monitoring and verification. It should be understood that the international community was never going to remove all vestiges of a civilian Iranian nuclear program. Sovereign states are considered to have a right to nuclear energy and the civilian benefits of nuclear power. A completely "non-nuclear Iran" was never in the cards, nor was it an objective of the U.S. government and its partners.
Perhaps more importantly, the agreement was neither predicated upon, nor expected to instigate, the precipitation of visible changes in Iranian foreign policy or the repression of its citizens. It certainly was not intended, nor could anyone logically envision that it would somehow force a surrender of the Iranian regime or change in leadership to one more amenable to U.S. interests. The deal is not a diplomatic grand bargain that would fundamentally alter U.S.-Iranian relations and constitute a rapprochement between Washington, Tel Aviv, and Tehran. The United States must continue to work with its allies to prevent Iranian provocation, deter bad behavior, and if necessary defend allies from aggression in the region. The nuclear agreement is also unlikely to be a watershed in the Iranian domestic political sphere, though greater interactions with the West may broadly encourage and empower more moderate and democratic elements and make repression less viable over time.
The Criticisms and Implications
For much of the past two decades, defense and foreign policy experts in Washington have been acutely focused on the potential negative implications of a nuclear-armed Iran. This agreement makes a major contribution to resolving that critical policy challenge for over a decade. Criticisms of the agreement have tended to focus on the specific issue of sanctions relief and the broader contours of the agreement.
While greater funds drawn for sanctions relief may indeed facilitate the export of terrorism or proxy violence around the region, a handful of operational nuclear weapon in the hands of the Iranian regime would be far more dangerous. The testing and deployment of a Iranian bomb is more likely to incite regional arms race dynamics, intensify diplomatic crises and raise the probability of actual war in the volatile and tumultuous Middle East. An Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps flush with cash is a certainly a real threat, but one that can be targeted and addressed over time through concerted efforts of the United States and its allies. The only answer to the prospect of an operational Iranian bomb for many in Washington was war.
This odd downplaying of the actual removal of the Iranian bomb follows from critic's claims that a "better deal" could have been achieved. Harsh, targeted sanctions devised and implemented by the Obama administration and the international community brought Iran to the table, but the sanctions could only be part of a process to achieve a negotiated solution. The effectiveness of sanctions depends on the deep cooperation of partners and the administration succeeded in bringing in Russia and China, despite their reservations.
Yet even under the pain of sanctions, Iran was in a position to achieve an operational nuclear weapon within a matter of months. Moreover, when Congress did attempt to impose further unilateral sanctions against Tehran at a particularly difficult juncture in negotiations, the Obama administration successfully opposed them in large part because the sanctions would have completely scuttled the talks. For their part, the Iranians threatened to walk away and portrayed additional sanctions levied during negotiations as deal breakers.
The common theme of critics seems to be that the outcome was simply an American (or more specifically an Obama administration) choice. Neither Iran, nor the other participants play any meaningful role in the process or the outcome. However, the notion that over the past two years, the United States could have simply held out and relied on additional punitive unilateral sanctions, and that Tehran would 1) continue to negotiate, or 2) simply accept a deal that was more draconian and intrusive than the current one or surrendered its entire nuclear infrastructure is fantastic and simply not grounded in reality.
The so-called P5+1 (or E3+3) coalition engaged in arduous, painstaking negotiations to resolve the problem of an Iranian nuclear weapons program. Within a multilateral framework, the Obama administration used diplomacy to achieve an agreement that served U.S. interests. The goals were to end the nuclear weapons program in the short-term and block Iran's path to a bomb in the longer-term. Despite its limitations, this agreement certainly achieves those objectives. However, if the United States was to now walk away from the agreement, not only would the deal disappear, but the existing sanctions regime would collapse. Not just Beijing and Moscow, but America's European allies would turn away from the United States, leaving Washington isolated diplomatically. Most importantly, there would be few obstacles in Iran's path to an operational nuclear weapon, save military intervention.