- By John HannahJohn Hannah is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, focusing on U.S. strategy. During the presidency of George W. Bush, he served for eight years on the staff of Vice President Cheney, including as the vice president's national security advisor.
As it was in the beginning, so it remains one year on: The overriding danger of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the Iran nuclear deal, is its provisions for automatically lifting the most important restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program by 2030. All the deal’s other shortcomings — of which there are many — largely pale in comparison. Plausible arguments can be made that those reflect difficult but necessary compromises, calculated risks that can be effectively mitigated by aggressive enforcement efforts and U.S. determination to confront Iranian aggression more broadly. Much harder to defend is a sunset clause that paves the way for an unreconstructed Iran to become a nuclear weapons threshold state in a mere 15 — wait, make that 14 — years. That’s not a calculated risk. That’s a formula for strategic disaster.
Under the JCPOA, by 2030 Iran will be permitted to build an industrial-size nuclear industry. It will be able to operate an unlimited number of advanced centrifuges and accumulate as large a stockpile of fissile material as it desires. That, in theory, includes weapons-grade uranium. At that point, it would be weeks, maybe even days, away from having the fuel for a small arsenal of nuclear weapons. All of this legitimized by the United States and the rest of what passes for the international community.
Mind you, the JCPOA green-lights Iran’s move to within a screwdriver’s turn of a nuke, regardless of the country’s behavior in the non-nuclear sphere. All of the deal’s restrictions disappear, even if Iran remains the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism, even if it continues to destabilize its neighbors, and even if “Death to America” and the annihilation of Israel remain the regime’s highest calling.
White House assurances that Iran’s nuclear ambitions in 2030 will still be constrained effectively by its adherence to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Additional Protocol ring hollow. Even with intrusive inspections, the odds of detecting in real time Iran’s dash to a bomb will be perilously low once the country possesses a massive nuclear infrastructure and near-zero breakout time. At that point, hiding a series of small, covert enrichment facilities spinning highly advanced centrifuges will be child’s play for a regime that has systematically practiced nuclear deception for two decades. Under those circumstances, relying on the IAEA’s Additional Protocol to provide the United States with sufficient warning to prevent an Iranian nuclear fait accompli would be folly bordering on delusion.
The sunset provisions of the JCPOA are a ticking time bomb that needs to be defused. That means disabusing Iran of the idea that the United States is prepared to accept any plans on Iran’s part to dramatically expand its enrichment capability (or plutonium reprocessing and separation capability) once the JCPOA’s restrictions expire. The United States should make clear that it views the development of such a capability as unnecessary for meeting Iran’s legitimate civilian nuclear energy needs, as well as highly destabilizing and threatening to U.S. interests.
The fact is that all of Iran’s civil requirements for enriched uranium can be met, securely and economically, through contractual relationships with foreign suppliers that the JCPOA will facilitate and enhance over the next 15 years. With the country’s legitimate enrichment needs met by a reliable and tested overseas supply chain blessed (and even guaranteed) by the international community, Iran’s demands to develop an unconstrained capability to produce fissile material indigenously should be firmly rejected as an unacceptable danger to Middle East peace and security.
The United States, as part of its efforts to dissuade Iran from dramatically ramping up its capabilities once the sunset provisions kick in, should develop a set of red lines concerning the size and scope of Iran’s post-JCPOA nuclear program. With perhaps minor adjustments, these should aim to extend, and ideally make permanent, the deal’s current restrictions pertaining to centrifuge numbers and models, enrichment levels, and accumulated stockpiles. While the United States would strongly prefer to work out these post-JCPOA limits in a new negotiation, taking into account Iran’s legitimate interests, America should make clear its determination to enforce limits irrespective of any new agreement, using all means at its disposal — from the reimposition of powerful financial sanctions to military force.
It goes without saying that correcting the fatal flaw of the JCPOA’s sunset provisions will be no easy task. It certainly won’t happen overnight. Iran will cry bloody murder. Our negotiating partners in the P5+1 — China, England, France, Germany, and Russia — will strongly resist re-opening the deal. Success will require enormous U.S. diplomatic perseverance, will, and credibility. Which is precisely why there is no chance that the Obama administration will undertake the effort in the short time it has left. It simply has too much at stake to draw into question the alleged success of its signature foreign policy accomplishment.
Not so for the next administration. As bears constant repeating, the JCPOA is not a legally binding agreement. A new president will be within his or her rights to accept it, reject it, or demand that it be modified to address core national security concerns. That fact should bestow real leverage on the next administration as it approaches international partners in the P5+1 who will be eager to avoid the deal’s outright collapse, as well as an early blowout with a new American leader. A good faith offer by the new president to implement the JCPOA, coupled with a reasonable demand that its most glaring deficiencies be addressed, could, with time, well win the day diplomatically — especially if backed by a credible threat to act unilaterally should it eventually prove necessary.
Here, the next administration could significantly strengthen its hand by moving quickly to first get the full-throated backing of the U.S. Congress and our key friends and allies in the Middle East. There would almost certainly be widespread support for modifying the JCPOA’s sunset provisions among both groups — Republicans and Democrats, Arabs and Israelis. Reestablishing a new bipartisan consensus at home with respect to the Iran deal, and a new unity of purpose abroad with our most influential Middle Eastern partners, would likely serve as a considerable force multiplier when a new president does attempt to engage the broader international community.
Fourteen years. If we’re lucky, that’s how much time we have before the JCPOA is set to blow up in our faces, unleashing Iran to fulfill its nuclear ambitions under the cover of international legitimacy. Ensuring that doesn’t happen by maintaining key nuclear restrictions beyond 2030 no doubt poses an enormous diplomatic challenge. It will almost certainly be a time-consuming and arduous process, and should therefore be among a new administration’s highest priorities from its first day in office. The stakes are huge. The road will be long. And 14 years is much shorter than you think. Tick, tock. Tick, tock.
Photo credit: U.S. Department of State/Wikimedia Commons