The Big Winners of the Iran Nuclear Deal
Why Pentagon planners should be thrilled.
Before anybody read (if they ever actually do) the full text of the P5+1 agreement with Iran on its nuclear program, officials and pundits had already offered a range of positive and dire hypothetical outcomes. Let me offer one of my own: Be especially skeptical of anybody who claims to be able to read the minds of Iranian leaders or confidently predict how neighboring states will respond.
But it’s not too soon to nominate one of the biggest winners of this deal: U.S. defense planners. These are the civilian and military leaders and staffers who plan for likely force structure requirements, bilateral basing and transit arrangements, theater security cooperation plans, campaign plans, and commitments to treaty allies and partners. The concepts, informal arrangements, and detailed plans that go into defense planning would have all been vastly more difficult, costly, and risky if the deal had failed, bringing with it the greater possibility that Iran would eventually possess a nuclear weapon and a reliable delivery system. Now, however, it is vastly less likely that Iran will have the bomb.
The primary concern for defense planners has always been that an Iranian bomb could deter or significantly interfere with U.S. conventional power projection capabilities in the region. Should there be a significant disagreement over some issue concerning both countries — say an overt invasion to effect regime change in Syria — a verifiably non-nuclear Iran poses far less of a threat to U.S. forces, who would be concentrated at several regional bases. Recall that in March and April of 2003, Iraq fired several missiles at U.S. headquarters in Kuwait and Iraq. In one instance, a Seersucker cruise missile unexpectedly hit Camp Commando, the Marine Corps headquarters in Kuwait. Earlier in 1991, a Scud missile killed 28 members of the Pennsylvania Army Reserve when it hit their barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. As history shows, Iraq’s conventional weapons did not deter U.S. strategic defense plans in the region.
The other deterrent quality of an Iranian nuclear weapon would be the effect it would have on convincing allies and partners that they cannot rely on U.S. security guarantees. If those countries — from Israel to Saudi Arabia — had doubts about the extent of America’s commitment (and were there to be an Iranian nuclear weapon), they would be less likely to grant U.S. forces access to their soil out of fear of an Iranian nuclear attack and, subsequently, might be more willing to accept Iran’s preferred political outcomes in the region. Concerns about allied uncertainties are heightened in the Persian Gulf where the United States does not have well-developed and institutionalized nuclear guarantees with its allies, as it does with NATO countries.
In addition, a verifiably non-nuclear Iran also means that those lower level military skirmishes that quietly happen all the time will not escalate to a nuclear crisis situation. For example, there have been a number of near misses in the Persian Gulf between Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps tactical boats and U.S. Navy ships, IRGC surveillance drones and Navy helicopters, as well as multiple attempts by IRGC fighter jets to shoot down U.S. Predator surveillance drones. Moreover, Iran constantly undertakes purposeful interference with U.S. military and commercial space systems using lasers and jammers. These harassments will still continue, but now they will not be exacerbated or inadvertently escalated into a full-blown nuclear crisis with the United States.
Of course, Iran will still have a growing number of medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles that could be used for offensive operations or to (attempt to) place satellites into orbit. As Saddam Hussein learned in 1991 with the dozens of Scud missiles that were launched into Saudi Arabia and Israel, ballistic missiles with conventional warheads are weapons of terror but are militarily ineffective due to their inaccuracy and limited lethality, and they ultimately did not deter either country from supporting the military coalition against him. One can imagine that President Barack Obama’s administration will redouble its missile defense cooperation with European and Persian Gulf partners in the face of Iran’s conventionally armed missiles. This cooperation can be provided in the form of further real-time access to U.S. early warning data on Iranian missile launches. Now, defense planners do not have to worry that Iran’s missiles and space launch vehicles will be armed with nuclear warheads that can threaten or kill millions of people outside of its territory. The Pentagon can now provide more military options to the White House, unconstrained by the deterrent effects of an Iranian nuclear weapon; moreover, finite defense planning time and capabilities can be employed elsewhere, say in support of the Asia rebalancing.
Defense planners must also be satisfied that today’s deal makes it less likely that Israel will unilaterally attack Iran’s suspected nuclear installations to delay its acquisition of a nuclear bomb. Even if Israel acted alone, and the United States was given no explicit forewarning, Washington would be perceived as having been complicit or as a co-conspirator with its close partner. This would have raised the possibility of Iran directly — or through further support to its proxy militias in Iraq and Afghanistan — attacking U.S. service members and diplomatic installations. Now, Israel is less likely to unilaterally attack Iran in the near-term, provided that there is no clear and overriding evidence of Iran covertly cheating to acquire a bomb.
The International Atomic Energy Agency will receive unprecedented and continuous access to sensitive Iranian nuclear sites, including those at military facilities. For all of the deception and cheating that nuclear aspirants attempt with varying degrees of success, IAEA inspectors provide defense planners with insights and predictability that U.S. intelligence assets simply cannot reliably obtain. As then-CIA Director David Petraeus said in January 2012, IAEA reports were “a very accurate reflection of the reality of the situation on the ground” and “the authoritative document” on Iran’s nuclear program. Rest assured that the CIA will piggyback on these inspections directly (as it did with the U.N. Special Commission in Iraq) and obtain access to the inspectors’ raw data and final analysis that is compiled in Vienna, Austria. This information will allow U.S. Central Command planners to update the target portfolio of nuclear sites in Iran should Obama or a future president decide to attack them.
The agreement makes it drastically less probable that Iran will have a nuclear weapon over the course of the agreement’s lifetime. This matters because the destructive power and lethality of nuclear weapons are wholly unlike all other explosives or weapon systems. If you are a proponent of U.S. hegemony in the Middle East, this agreement makes that outcome more likely and less risky for the U.S. military to fulfill. The United States’ interests in the region (in rough order) are assuring the continuous supply and transit of vital natural resources; preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and delivery vehicles; limiting international terrorist attacks from the region against the U.S. homeland and diplomatic facilities; and protecting treaty allies (Turkey) and partners (Israel, Jordan, and the Gulf states) in the region. Now, all of these things are still challenging — but far easier to accomplish with a verifiably non-nuclear Iran. Defense planners within Centcom and the Pentagon are certainly happy with the outcome as they are the big winners this week and over the next 15 years.
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