Choose Your Own Nuke Deal Adventure

On Iran, the Obama administration is running a master class in how to trap yourself between a rock and a hard place.


As the March 31 deadline for a negotiated solution to Iran’s nuclear weapons programs approaches, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is urgently trying to bridge the remaining gaps between the Iranian and P5+1 positions. Several possible outcomes loom: a continuation of the current “freeze for freeze,” a negotiated deal that allows wide-ranging inspections, or an array of “no deal” possibilities. There are at least a few reasonably good outcomes, although all will dramatically alter America’s relationships in the Middle East

Scenario No.1: A nuclear deal that preserves the status quo

Iran continues the “freeze” on its enrichment, and the P5+1 nations agree to no additional sanctions, while talks continue. Europeans will press the United States to accept this outcome over escalation, arguing that any unilateral U.S. actions — economic or military — will fracture the coalition.

The Israelis and Gulf states will not support this, complicating our relationships with the countries most strongly aligned with us against a nuclear-armed Iran. Congress will surely pass additional sanctions. If Iran sustains the limited sanctions relief it has already attained and Washington becomes preoccupied with foreclosing either executive or congressional action, Iran will preserve wide latitude for clandestine weapons development. This would be a big win for Iran, and the likeliest outcome.

Scenario No. 2: Nuclear deal with challenge inspections

One of the scariest deceptions surrounding Iran’s nuclear programs hasn’t been perpetuated by the Iranians, but by the U.S. intelligence community. Both the Director of National Intelligence and the former CIA Director have testified that we will know if Iran chooses to develop a nuclear weapon. That claim is flat-out implausible, especially since they were unable to detect Iran’s nuclear weapons program to begin with (and were wrong about Iraq’s, for that matter).

The key to any deal gaining support will be its inspection provisions: if the agreement allows no-notice, immediate challenge inspections of undeclared sites, it will provide a high level of assurance that we can find Iranian facilities we haven’t yet identified (or, more accurately: had domestic opponents of the Iranian government identify for us). That means it would be very difficult for Iran to cheat on the deal and develop weapons without our knowledge. If there are no challenge inspections, or Tehran is allowed to refuse inspection requests, we will be accepting its word that the only nuclear facilities it has are the ones it has already revealed to us — and about which it repeatedly lied. Inspections are more important than centrifuges. This would be a big win for the United States, but a very unlikely outcome.

Scenario No. 3: No deal, P5+1 additional sanctions

Persuading Russia, China, and the Europeans to increase sanctions would be a very tough trick to pull off, given the current state of U.S.-Russian relations. Here again, the Senate letter distracts attention from Iran’s unwillingness to meet the terms for an enforceable deal. Thanks to the letter, the difficulty of working with the United States will likely become the lead story for our partners.

If the president could persuade the P5+1 that military force is the only way to achieve the political end state we desire, they may well prefer sanctions over a war that burnishes American standing. A good outcome, but this is a very long shot, especially given the lack of U.S. credibility just now.

Scenario No. 4: No deal, and an erosion of sanctions

In this scenario, the U.S. Congress legislates additional sanctions that will have little impact — most of the commerce with Iran that the United States could curtail has, after all, already been curtailed. Europeans, Russians, and the Chinese all oppose extra-territorial U.S. sanctions. And with global oil prices plummeting, the Gulf states, Turkey, and China, have an economic interest in doing clandestine business with Iran.

Problems closer to home will take precedence for Europeans if they think U.S. military options are off the table. This is reminiscent of Iraq in 2002, when sanctions became less legitimate and more porous, and countries in the region came to resent our ineffectiveness. A bad and likely outcome — unless we begin to think much more creatively about what constitutes sanctions. They need not be narrowly economic or symmetric. We should be imposing a wide range of costs on Iran, including stiffening banking regulations in the Gulf, exposing and attacking Iranian terrorism, interdicting Iranian weapons shipments to Yemen, Somalia, and Sudan, and increasing intelligence cooperation with countries in the region to hem Iran in.

Scenario No. 5: No deal, unilateral Israeli escalation

Hamas has grown weaker since the war last summer. Hezbollah is tied down in Syria. Iran is committed in Iraq’s war on the Islamic State. And Israel’s defenses are stronger — a propitious time for an Israeli attack on Iran.

If Israel were to pursue unilateral action against Iran, Tehran’s regional foes would likely offer their clandestine assistance. The state of animosity between Israel and the United States actually probably makes U.S. assistance more likely, because if Israel chooses war, it will be because it doesn’t trust our promises, which imposes heavy domestic costs on the Obama administration. But knowledgeable military experts tell me that they doubt whether Israel could substantially destroy Iran’s extensive nuclear infrastructure, even if the Israeli war cabinet — where Netanyahu doesn’t currently have a consensus — coalesced. A bad outcome, but long odds.

Scenario No. 6: No deal, and regional coalition escalation

When Obama claims he is surprised by the alignment of opponents to the deal taking shape, he’s referring to Republican senators and Iranian hard-liners. But he doesn’t seem to appreciate the irony that a lack of confidence in U.S. policy towards Iran’s nuclear program has unified the six Gulf states, despite their deep divisions over political Islam. This has given them common cause with Israel, exposed Jordan and Morocco to threats, and alerted Turkey and Egypt to a cascade of regional proliferation they won’t want to be bystanders to.

Countries in the region have the resources to handle this problem. Arab states might even be able to exact Israeli concessions on Palestine, breaking a logjam the United States could not. Trade and financial exclusions advanced by that bloc of countries could be damaging for Iran; a military attack coming from them would portend a very different Middle East, with Iran hemmed in by a hostile coalition and America wholly inconsequential. A good outcome, but one purchased at the price of U.S. credibility.

Scenario No. 7: No deal, unilateral U.S. escalation

Whether or not the president explicitly says he will attack the Iranian nuclear facilities, that is the implication of his policy. Then again: the President called the Iraq War — a parallel situation — a dumb war. His instincts militate against carrying out his policy to do whatever is necessary to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. And while his choice on the bin Laden raid was admirable, that was a much easier decision than going to war with Iran over the mere prospect of it only having — not even threatening to use — a nuclear weapon.

The gap between what the president is saying and what both our allies and enemies believe he will actually do is dangerous, if Iran should call his bluff. Given his track record, a reprise of his climb down from his Syria red line rhetoric is more likely than the use of military force — with disastrous effects for U.S. foreign policy. Expect all manner of contortion from the White House to avoid making this choice.

Which is where that Senate letter could prove so damaging (and the Netanyahu speech, for that matter). Absent demonstrably repudiating its nuclear weapons ambitions — which the government of Iran has given no indication it intends to do — the preferred White House outcome across two administrations has been to buy time with increased economic penalties, and hope that Iran changes course. Obama has repeatedly insisted that an Iranian nuclear weapon is “unacceptable,” and that containment is not enough. Yet he has also ruled out attacking its facilities. The White House is pinched between arguing both for sanctions, and against military action — that basically there is no alternative to whatever deal they strike.

The Senate letter actually gives the president more options: now, he can blame his domestic critics for Iran’s failure to make a deal, making Iran appear blameless. But in actuality, if it’s not Iran’s fault there isn’t a negotiated solution, then the president can justify further extending the negotiations — a terrible outcome that leaves all parties in a more perilous state.

Correction, March 16, 2015: The deadline for a framework nuclear deal with Iran is March 31. An earlier version of this article mistakenly said the date was March 25. Some lawmakers in Congress have set a March 24 deadline, but State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki has said the deadline is March 31.

Rick Wilking / Staff

Kori Schake is the deputy director general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

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