The 'Other' Options With Iran's Nuclear Program

Opponents to the Iran deal often say that they could have gotten a better deal. These critics are largely found in the U.S. and in Israel. Critics are right for scrutinizing any deal. They would not be doing their job if they were giving it an automatic pass. However, being critical because a better alternative is desired is not realistic.
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Opponents to the Iran deal often say that they could have gotten a better deal. These critics are largely found in the U.S. and in Israel. Critics are right for scrutinizing any deal. They would not be doing their job if they were giving it an automatic pass.

However, being critical because a better alternative is desired is not realistic. There are many limitations to negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program. These include but are not limited to: Iranian opposition, Russian and Chinese opposition, a desire for sanctions to be lifted to allow business for other than Iranian companies to resume, and the limitations of military force and covert action. The JCPOA is probably the best course of action. This is not just the opinion of the US. It is the opinion of England, France, Germany, the EU, Russia, and China, as well as Iran.

Critics of the JCPOA offer other alternatives, which we will briefly explore. There are seven main options as I can see it.

  1. do nothing
  2. tougher negotiations
  3. tougher sanctions
  4. military strike
  5. covert action
  6. a combination of sanctions, military and covert action
  7. the JCPOA - the current deal

Do Nothing
Doing nothing is not really an option, but it could be the consequence if the deal fails. The break out period is still between 1-3 months. Iran continues to possess upwards of 20,000 centrifuges, and continues to enrich uranium at 20% which is very close in process to getting it to over 90% which is needed for a bomb. The sanctions on Iran fall apart because Russia and China, as well as much of the rest of the world are no longer in favor of harsh sanctions precisely because the US worked a good deal with the EU/EU+3, or the P5+1 and Iran. The IAEA has virtually no ability to inspect Iran's nuclear program, so not only does the uranium program continue, so too does the plutonium program and there is no ability to detect covert activity.

Tougher Negotiations
There is a contingent of opponents who suggest that they could have negotiated a better deal. They are largely candidates running for political office who do not need to factor in the realities of the limitations of negotiating with the EU/EU+3, or the P5+1 and Iran. The other parties at the negotiating table would all have to agree to this hypothetical better deal, including Iran. There is no reason to believe that a better deal could have been negotiated, which leaves us with a few other options.

Tougher Sanctions
This is not an option. Russia and China have already said that they are not interested in tough sanctions. They will not support them and their support in the form of a non-veto is needed on the UN Security Council. The U.S. can't really sanction alone because other nations such as China and Russia, as well as many others, could just ignore the unilateral sanctions. Giving these other nations the ultimatum that if you don't join us you won't be part of our economy has the potential to harm the US economy, so that is not really an option. Cooperation, not competition is what is needed.

Military Strikes
President Obama has come under some criticism for suggesting that if anyone is determined to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, by rejecting the JCPOA war is the only alternative. The knowledge of how to produce a nuclear weapon is not something that can be destroyed. Attacking Iran's known nuclear sites would destroy them; there is no doubt about that. However, a preemptive attack on Iran's program would virtually guarantee that Iran would change its position and seek a nuclear weapon for the deterrent value found in possessing nuclear weapons.

Covert Action
Covert action is action that is designed to dismantle or disrupt Iran's nuclear program. This can come in the form of computer hacking to make centrifuges spin at speeds so high that they break; assassination of key Iranian nuclear physicists; or any number of other creative ways that covert action happens. The down side is that this approach only slows Iran's nuclear program progress. It does not eviscerate their capabilities or erase their nuclear knowledge.

A Combination of Sanctions, Military and Covert Action
Once could argue that is we destroy Iran's nuclear facilities, kill their key nuclear scientists, and sanction Iran so harshly that they won't be able to have the money to hire new scientists or rebuild their nuclear infrastructure. Such an aggressive approach would likely be viewed by our allies as further destabilizing the region, not to mention giving Iran reason to retaliate once it has the ability.

The bottom line is that if individually none of these options will work there is nothing to believe that applying all three would produce any different outcome.

The JCPOA - The Iran Deal
Critics claim that we got "nothing" in the JCPOA. This is not true. We are able to prevent Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon, something Iran said it is not pursuing anyway. We achieved this by blocking all four pathways to Iran could have used to produce a nuclear weapon - uranium enrichment at 1) Fordow and 2) Natanz, 3) plutonium enrichment at Arak, and 4) disrupting covert activity through the most intrusive inspections in the history of non-proliferation.

Known nuclear sites have anytime inspections and oversight. Iran agreed to this. Iran will go from 20,000 centrifuges to about 6,000. From enriching uranium at levels close to what would be needed to produce a nuclear weapon, Iran will be limited to energy, medicinal and research levels.

It is true that for all non-known nuclear sites, there is a 14+7+3 day process to inspect suspect sites. But there is a safety valve detailed in the JCPOA for sanctions to be reimposed if this avenue fails.

It is true that there is nearly $150 billion in seized funds that Iran stands to recoup from the years of sanctions. However, it will cost billions of dollars for Iran to restart its largely mothballed oil and gas industry. It is going to cost billions to get Iran's crumbling infrastructure back on track. That still leaves a lot of money for Iran's support of Hezbollah. Iran has always supported Hezbollah and has done so for relatively little money, by some estimates about $60-100 million a year.

Enemies of the U.S. are thought to be subhuman but possess superhuman destructive capabilities. The $150 billion is not likely going to be a game changer, if have any impact on support for Hezbollah at all.

It is true that the U.S. did not negotiate the release of three Americans being held by Iran or many other points of contention, but there was a lot that was not negotiated because these many things were beyond the scope of Iran's nuclear program. Had non-nuclear related issues been demanded, Iran would have likely as well and such demands by both sides could have and probably would have derailed the whole process.

It is important to keep in mind that Iran has said that it will not be pursuing a nuclear weapon. Iran agreed to non-proliferation in the JCPOA, the NPT, and openly via the world's media outlets. We confirmed this in the 2007 NIE. Should we trust Iran? No one outside of Iran thinks that Iran should be trusted and that is why the most intrusive inspection verification safeguards in the history of non-proliferation were agreed to.

Much like the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the Stimulus), the Trans-Pacific Partnership (the TPP), and so many other initiatives proposed by President Obama that were thought to bring about the end of America and perhaps the world, the JCPOA is thought to precede the same fate. But if history is a judge of what we may expect to see the JCPOA will work one way or the other. Iran's program will be monitored or the sanctions in place today will 'snap back' into place and the US holds the UNSC veto to preventing them from being lifted.

PAUL HEROUX is a state representative from Massachusetts who previously lived and worked in the Middle East, was a senior analyst at the Institute for Defense and Disarmament Studies, and is a frequent guest on TV and radio stations discussing the Middle East. Paul has a Master's in International Relations from the London School of Economics and a Master's from the Harvard School of Government. Paul can be reached at

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