Tearing Up the Nuke Deal Now Would Hand Iran the Best of All Possible Worlds

Trump should be seeking a longer agreement, not a shorter one.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani gives a press conference in Tehran on Jaunary 17, 2017, to mark the first anniversary of the implementation of a historic nuclear deal. / AFP / ATTA KENARE        (Photo credit should read ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani gives a press conference in Tehran on Jaunary 17, 2017, to mark the first anniversary of the implementation of a historic nuclear deal. / AFP / ATTA KENARE (Photo credit should read ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani gives a press conference in Tehran on Jaunary 17, 2017, to mark the first anniversary of the implementation of a historic nuclear deal. / AFP / ATTA KENARE (Photo credit should read ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)

The Iran nuclear deal is deeply flawed. Its duration is too short, and it fails to require of Tehran the universally agreed-upon minimum for effective verification — a complete and correct declaration of all relevant activities. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake for President Donald Trump to renounce it now, as he is reportedly contemplating.

First, the deal’s short duration is problematic. President Barack Obama himself warned, “[A] … relevant fear would be that in year 13, 14, 15, [Iran has] advanced centrifuges that enrich uranium fairly rapidly, and at that point, the breakout times would have shrunk almost down to zero.” Tearing up the deal now would only compound this problem. Trump should be seeking a longer deal, not a shorter one.

Worse, with the unfreezing of hundreds of billions of dollars in assets and approval of like amounts of investments and commercial transactions, Iran has already gained enormous benefits from the agreement, while the other parties have not. In real estate terms, walking away now would be like putting down a two-month deposit and six months of prepaid rent, and then abandoning an apartment after a few weeks. Iran’s benefits from the deal were immediate and permanent, whereas those that may accrue to the other parties are deferred and temporary.

The Iran nuclear deal is deeply flawed. Its duration is too short, and it fails to require of Tehran the universally agreed-upon minimum for effective verification — a complete and correct declaration of all relevant activities. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake for President Donald Trump to renounce it now, as he is reportedly contemplating.

First, the deal’s short duration is problematic. President Barack Obama himself warned, “[A] … relevant fear would be that in year 13, 14, 15, [Iran has] advanced centrifuges that enrich uranium fairly rapidly, and at that point, the breakout times would have shrunk almost down to zero.” Tearing up the deal now would only compound this problem. Trump should be seeking a longer deal, not a shorter one.

Worse, with the unfreezing of hundreds of billions of dollars in assets and approval of like amounts of investments and commercial transactions, Iran has already gained enormous benefits from the agreement, while the other parties have not. In real estate terms, walking away now would be like putting down a two-month deposit and six months of prepaid rent, and then abandoning an apartment after a few weeks. Iran’s benefits from the deal were immediate and permanent, whereas those that may accrue to the other parties are deferred and temporary.

Second, if the United States destroyed the Iran nuclear deal, it would be impossible to reassemble the international coalition necessary to impose effective sanctions. China and Russia would certainly press ahead with the commercial deals they have been busy signing. Their willingness to do business with Tehran alone, not to mention the vetoes they wield in the U.N. Security Council, would be enough to undermine fatally any attempt to re-impose sanctions. Thus, tearing up the deal now would give Iran the best of all worlds: freedom from sanctions and unlimited enrichment efforts.

Third, Britain, France, and Germany vigorously oppose ending the deal they helped to negotiate, and therefore doing so would deepen the fissures that already threaten North Atlantic alliances. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s primary strategic objective is to fracture NATO, and tearing up the Iran deal would hand Moscow an important victory in that campaign.

Lingering frustration over the Iran deal is understandable. It was badly oversold. While Obama said, “Every pathway to a nuclear weapon is cut off,” he knew that restrictions on enrichment capacity would fade away eight to 13 years from now. The administration promised anytime-anywhere inspections, but did not deliver. The deal was also rammed through Congress under jury-rigged procedures, despite opposition by a bipartisan majority of both houses. Moreover, Iran is almost daily salting these wounds with missile tests, aggressive regional policies, and continuing support for terrorism.

Frustration about the deal, however, would be best directed toward three positive actions.

First, the accord must be enforced rigorously, but has not been.

Second, the United States will need to map out and build a consensus for actions that will be necessary to deter Tehran from fulfilling its plans to deploy almost twenty times the enrichment capacity at which it was operating when the agreement was finalized. This will require a sophisticated, multiyear diplomatic campaign.

Third, Iran’s long-range missile program, which — given its inaccuracy — only makes sense when paired with nuclear weapons, must be curbed. Those are objectives that our allies can endorse and ones that we will need their help to achieve.

Absent those actions, Trump’s successor will face an Iran only days from the ability to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon, unfettered by international sanctions and fortified by renewed oil revenues. Tearing up the deal now would only hasten that perilous day.

Photo credit: ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

William Tobey is a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs was most recently deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration.

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