Let Tehran’s Atomic Clock Keep Ticking

The only way to reach a nuclear deal with Iran is to accept that Iran will be able to go nuclear.


Will the United States and Iran succeed in reaching an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, and will U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani be able to overcome the hard-liners who remain at best wary of a deal and at worst fervently opposed? Secretary of State John Kerry struck a somewhat upbeat tone at a recent press conference, but he is often more optimistic than circumstances warrant.

In addition to the domestic obstacles that each side faces, the fundamental barrier to an agreement is the incompatibility of each side’s core objective. For the United States (and possibly the rest of the P5+1 — Britain, China, France, and Russia, plus Germany), the central goal is to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons, which means denying it a clear path to a weapon at any point in the future. In other words, the United States wants to make obtaining a nuclear weapon a practical impossibility, either by persuading Iran to dismantle its capacity to produce fissile material or by ensuring that the United States has adequate time to destroy Iran’s stockpile of material and related infrastructure in the event Tehran tries to race for a bomb at some later date.

For Iran, however, its nuclear program is an insurance policy against an American (or Israeli) effort at regime change. It has no active nuclear weapons program today, but it would like to make sure that it has a clear path to a bomb — i.e., a path that the United States or Israel cannot block with military action — if it ever decides it needs one. Iran’s motives should be easy for Americans and Israelis to understand, given that both of these states have robust nuclear arsenals of their own and no intention of giving them up. Moreover, the U.S. government has repeatedly threatened to attack Iran with military force, prominent U.S. politicians have called openly for regime change there, and the United States and/or Israel have conducted a variety of damaging covert actions (including the murder of Iranian nuclear scientists) in recent years. Some Iranians may be paranoid, but as the saying goes, sometimes paranoids have real enemies.

Obviously, reconciling these conflicting positions is not easy. In effect, it requires each side to be willing to live with less than its ultimate goal. The United States (and the rest of the P5+1) will have to live with the possibility — however remote — that Iran might be able to get a small nuclear weapons capability at some point in the future. Iran will have to live with the possibility that a future attempt to acquire an actual weapon might actually be thwarted by U.S. military action. It is within this gray area of mutual uncertainty in which a potential deal lies.

The tension between each side’s core objectives helps explain the current obsession with "breakout capacity." The United States and the rest of the P5+1 have been trying to get Iran to agree to reduce its stockpile of nuclear material and radically decrease the number of operational nuclear centrifuges, in order to lengthen the time it would take Iran to get sufficient nuclear material for a bomb. The idea, consistent with the argument presented above, is that a lengthy breakout period would give the United States (and perhaps others) more time to prepare a military response. The less capacity Iran has, and the longer the breakout time, the less open the path to a bomb would be.

But as Jeffrey Lewis, Paul Pillar, and Greg Thielmann and Robert Wright all note in recent posts on this topic, the obsession with breakout capacity is fundamentally misplaced, especially if the United States lets it get in the way of a reasonable deal. 

For starters, many estimates of a potential breakout period assume Iran encounters no technical difficulties in its path toward a weapon, something that is highly unlikely given past experience. Moreover, even a very short breakout period isn’t that worrisome, given that contingency plans for a preventive strike already exist. In this scenario, the United States would be acting unilaterally, and it would not need to spend much time building domestic or international support.

Furthermore, the ability to detect a breakout attempt depends heavily on the level and intrusiveness of inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. A deal that included Iran’s implementation of the "Additional Protocol" of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty would enhance the inspection regime significantly and make it much, much easier to detect a future breakout attempt. By contrast, failure to reach an agreement could lead Iran to expel the existing inspectors and leave us far less able to monitor its nuclear activities. Paradoxically, obsessing about breakout now could facilitate a successful breakout effort later.

Equally important is that the obsession with breakout capacity ignores the broader political and strategic realities that ought to be guiding our entire approach to Iran and its nuclear program. Breakout paranoia assumes that Tehran is hellbent on getting a nuclear weapon and that it will quickly march to do so once it thinks the world’s back is turned. It further assumes that Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear bomb would have overwhelmingly negative strategic consequences, such as enabling Iran to "blackmail" its neighbors or attack Israel. Never mind that no nuclear weapons state has ever been able to blackmail others or that Israel has a robust deterrent of its own and could not be attacked without triggering Iran’s own destruction. In short, breakout obsession rests on the usual worst-case assumptions that have driven U.S. policy for decades.

Moreover, as I’ve noted before, focusing solely on the breakout problem ignores the many positive benefits that the United States (and others) could gain from a more positive relationship with Tehran. A just-released study by the National Iranian-American Council finds that sanctions on Iran have cost the American economy between $135 billion and $175 billion since 1995; capping Iran’s program and then lifting these sanctions would thus be a direct boon to U.S. taxpayers.

And in case you haven’t noticed, the strategic interests of the United States and Iran are gradually becoming more closely aligned, as groups like the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) become more influential and cleavages within the Persian Gulf region multiply. A better working relationship between Washington and Tehran would enhance the United States’ ability to address issues like these, as well as the future endgame in Afghanistan. It would also give the United States more leverage in dealing with other recalcitrant allies in the Middle East (which is one reason Israel and Saudi Arabia worry that Iran and the United States might someday establish a more normal relationship). But given the amount of genuine cooperation Washington has gotten from some of its longtime allies lately, that possibility shouldn’t bother Obama, Kerry, or others all that much. 

Finally, trying to achieve an ironclad guarantee against an Iranian weapon in perpetuity ignores the need to make any agreement "renegotiation proof." In the unlikely event that the United States and the rest of the P5+1 were able to impose a wholly one-sided deal on Iran, it would leave Iranians feeling deeply resentful, and they would look for any opportunity to escape the deal or renegotiate the terms at some point in the future. To succeed, a deal on Iran’s nuclear program has to be one that both sides regard as beneficial, which in turn makes it far more likely the deal will endure.

And that’s the real point to keep in mind. Iran knows how to enrich uranium, and it has the technical knowledge to build a nuclear weapon if it ever wants to. Unless the United States commits itself to bombing Iran repeatedly or to invading the country and deposing its government — actions that would be completely idiotic as well as immoral — it cannot physically prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon. The only realistic approach, therefore, is to persuade Tehran that it is not in Iran’s interest to go down that road. Trying to close off the path entirely is less likely to work than making that path less attractive than the alternative. This means taking the threat of military force off the table (to reduce Iran’s perceived need for its own deterrent) and providing positive economic and diplomatic incentives that will strengthen Rouhani and other pragmatic Iranian leaders and undercut their hard-line opponents.

So why isn’t this obvious to more Americans, especially to all those hawkish skeptics up on Capitol Hill? It may be partly due to the Republican Party’s reflexive tendency to oppose anything the Obama administration tries to do, even when what Obama is doing makes good sense. But that doesn’t explain why a Democrat like New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez has been so obstructive. The real reason, alas, is the continued influence of AIPAC and other hard-line groups in the Israel lobby, such as the ADL, WINEP, JINSA, and others, which have been in the vanguard of opposition to any rapprochement with Iran for years.

Here it’s worth recalling what former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had to say about Congress in his recent memoir. In his words, Congress was all too often:

Uncivil, incompetent in fulfilling basic constitutional responsibilities (such as timely appropriations), micromanagerial, parochial, hypocritical, egotistical, thin-skinned, often putting self (and reelection) before country… [my emphasis].

Take particular note of that last line. Although men like Menendez may tell themselves that what they are doing is in the national interest, it was clear to Gates that they cared more about getting re-elected than in doing what was good for the country as a whole. If he’s right, what does that say about America’s ability to conduct an intelligent foreign policy, and one that isn’t constantly being hijacked by well-organized special interests? In the months ahead, the fate of the Iran negotiations will provide a revealing answer to that crucial question.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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