How to Avoid a Bad Deal With Iran

The effect of sanctions is diminishing. Tehran isn't bending. And there's only one thing that can get negotiations back on track.


The negotiations by the United States and five other world powers with Iran over its nuclear program have been extended for up to an additional seven months, and the mantra remains: Avoid a bad deal.

Before the extension, Vice President Joe Biden repeated a vow he and President Barack Obama have made again and again: The United States “will not sign a bad deal.” Even skeptics agree. After the extension, Sen. Bob Corker, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, opined, “I would rather the administration continue to negotiate than agree to a bad deal.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went on CBS’s Face the Nation to once again warn against a “very bad deal.” But even he preferred an extension of the negotiations to the alternatives: their collapse and a bad deal.

But what is a bad deal? And what can the United States do to avoid one? And does the extension help?

An agreement that leaves Iran’s breakout capacity where it stands today — several months from a bomb — is a bad deal. It would keep Iran far too close to having nuclear weapons, making it extremely difficult to stop Tehran if it decided to weaponize. Under no circumstance should such a deal be signed. Rather, an agreement with Iran must make certain that, if Tehran chooses to break (or sneak) out to a nuclear weapon, it would need several years to get there, thereby giving the West enough time to deal with the dangerous move.

Thus, the challenge facing the United States and other world powers as they continue their negotiations with Tehran is to dismantle crucial elements of the Iranian nuclear program that could be used for military purposes. First and foremost, Washington must insist on a drastic reduction in the number of centrifuges to a maximum quantity of 3,000 to 4,000 centrifuges, along with a stockpile of enriched uranium lower than the minimum required for a single nuclear bomb. These constraints should last for two decades. Second, unprecedented monitoring of all aspects of the Iranian nuclear program is required. This scrutiny must be based on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Additional Protocol and Iran’s positive response to opening files on military nuclear activities. International inspection should not be a voluntarily mechanism, but a binding one. Third, Tehran must agree to the conversion of the Fordow enrichment facility and the heavy-water reactor in Arak so that they cannot be used for military purposes. Lastly, the sanction-relief mechanism should be gradual and in accordance with Iranian progress in rolling back the nuclear program.

An agreement that does not meet these four criteria might stimulate other Middle Eastern countries to acquire nuclear capabilities. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, and Jordan would be first in line, and many Persian Gulf states have decided to start developing civilian nuclear capabilities, a crucial first step for building a military nuclear program.

Moreover, the possibility that the Islamic State (IS) or other terrorist groups may exploit regional chaos and acquire military nuclear capabilities also needs to be considered. That development would unleash a devastating threat to global security. With IS now controlling the areas in Iraq and Syria where nuclear reactors were bombed in 1981 and 2007, respectively, we could already be facing this threat had these nuclear weapons programs not been eliminated.

The nuclear negotiations between world powers and Iran should aim to prevent the radical Shiites in Tehran, the radical Sunnis of IS, and other extremist groups from acquiring nuclear weapons. But forcing Tehran’s hand to do something it clearly does not want is not easy. To reach such an agreement, the United States must maintain and rebalance its two levers of pressure on Tehran, and the seven-month extension gives Washington time to do just that.

The first lever — economic sanctions — succeeded in persuading Iran in 2013 to engage in meaningful negotiations. However, it is highly doubtful that this tool will convince the Iranian leadership to agree to significant concessions. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has yet to signal a willingness to accept the four required conditions mentioned earlier. The Iranian government has promoted reforms and developed mechanisms that have already alleviated a measure of the international sanctions’ effect on the Iranian economy. The Washington Institute’s Patrick Clawson has argued that even when the price of oil is low, Iran’s income is sufficient to maintain its foreign currency reserves at the level it needs.

Moreover, Iran’s attempt to evade sanctions through trade with Russia and China, and the European Court of Justice’s opposition to some EU sanctions imposed in 2012, make it increasingly difficult for the United States to maintain an effective sanctions regime that would change the Iranian calculus. The Iranians’ firm opposition to accepting any significant concession, and their willingness to extend the talks for another seven months, indicate that economic pressure might have already reached its maximum effect.

Therefore, Washington must restore the credibility of its second lever for pressuring Iran — the threat of a military strike. President Obama’s airpower war against the Islamic State can be a great help. The pinpoint strikes in Iraq and Syria can be much more effective against stationary targets than in a counterterrorism campaign. Washington should adapt this model and make clear to Tehran that if the supreme leader is not prepared to make concessions on key elements of the nuclear program that could be used for military purposes, it will be forced to consider a surgical aerial strike against nuclear facilities. This lever, if resolute, could induce Iran’s leaders to agree to a nuclear program that includes very limited and supervised self-enrichment, so that its program cannot serve as cover for a military nuclear one.

Only if the United States establishes a credible military threat and maintains the sanctions regime can it reach a good deal with Iran. But if Washington does not, it could find itself in a position in which a military strike is the only way to combat the Iranian nuclear threat and the further challenges to global security it poses.


Amos Yadlin, a retired major general in the Israel Defense Forces, served as the chief of Israel’s Military Intelligence Directorate from 2006 to 2010 and is now the director of the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel. As an air force pilot in 1981, he participated in the strike on the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq. Twitter: @YadlinAmos

Avner Golov is a research fellow and director of research programs at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies.