Trump’s Next Self-Inflicted Crisis Is a Nuclear Iran

If the president kills the nuclear deal, the backlash will come sooner than he thinks.

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (R) and Iranian head of the military Hasan Firoz Abadi look through binoculars during the test firing of short- and medium-range missiles on 18 September 2004, amid fears in the West that Tehran is developing nuclear weapons and an ongoing review by the UN watchdog of the country's atomic energy program. AFP PHOTO/Str (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (R) and Iranian head of the military Hasan Firoz Abadi look through binoculars during the test firing of short- and medium-range missiles on 18 September 2004, amid fears in the West that Tehran is developing nuclear weapons and an ongoing review by the UN watchdog of the country's atomic energy program. AFP PHOTO/Str (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)

Oct. 15, 2017. Put it in your calendar.

By that date, President Donald Trump must yet again certify that Iran is in compliance with the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Indeed, owing to the infinite wisdom of the “world’s greatest deliberative body,” the U.S. Senate, the president must make such a certification every 90 days. Trump has done so twice, although each time at the last possible moment and only following a knock-down, drag-out fight in which a bunch of globalist cucks, also known as Trump’s national security team, implored him not to walk away from the agreement. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Trump said, “If it was up to me, I would have had them noncompliant 180 days ago.”

Which is a weird thing to say because, you know, it is up to him whether to certify that Iran is in compliance. If Trump simply does nothing, Congress can reimpose sanctions on an expedited basis, which it would almost certainly do, thereby possibly collapsing the agreement.

The Iranians, of course, have noticed this little carnival of bellicosity. Both President Hassan Rouhani and Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the nuclear energy program, recently said that if the United States reimposes sanctions, Iran could quickly resume a limited number of nuclear activities. These statements were widely misquoted, as Ariane Tabatabai notes, but they remind us that Iran is contemplating its options.

So it is time for a stark warning: If the United States walks away from the JCPOA, Iran could have a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) much more quickly than you might think, possibly before Trump leaves office.

The United States walked away from the Agreed Framework with North Korea in 2003. Three years later, North Korea exploded its first nuclear weapon. This summer, North Korea started testing long-range missiles that can carry those nuclear weapons to cities in the United States like New York and Los Angeles.

If the United States walks away from the JCPOA, Iran could do the same thing — only faster. This is admittedly a worst-case scenario, but as you may have noticed last November, unlikely, even unthinkable things occasionally do happen. (I’m thinking about the Cubs coming back to win the World Series. Were you thinking of something else?)

First, a meager bit of good news. One purpose of the JCPOA was to extend the time needed for Iran to “break out” of the agreement and build a bomb using known facilities to about a year. Mission accomplished! Then again, I’ve always thought that was a dumb measure, not least because the Iranians are unlikely to use declared facilities that would remain under the inspection of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) under the terms of its pre-JCPOA safeguards. And throwing out the IAEA would create a yearlong crisis with a do-or-die date by which we must act. That’s a dumb way to go about building a bomb, the geopolitical equivalent of putting a “nuke me” sticker on the Natanz enrichment facility.

If Iran decides to go nuclear, Tehran would almost certainly go about it carefully, letting the IAEA remain in the country under its pre-JCPOA terms but building a facility in secret and presenting the world with a fait accompli. This might take a bit longer than that one year.

The bad news is that it’ll be much easier for Iran to get away with building a covert enrichment facility once the IAEA loses much of the access it has under the JCPOA. The IAEA would no longer be able to monitor Iran’s uranium mines or the workshops that build its centrifuges. The IAEA could ask to see these sites, of course, but the Iranians would be under no obligation to comply. And if the United States is seen as having manufactured a renewed crisis with Iran, there will be little international support, including among Washington’s European allies, for pressuring Iran to let the IAEA have a look around purely as a matter of courtesy.

In the past, Iran tried to keep its enrichment facilities secret as long as possible. The U.S. intelligence community detected those sites, but can we expect it to be perfect? If a new hidden site were detected, how would other countries react to an accusation from the Trump administration? Even if it were true, it’s not hard to see that others might not believe Trump.

And since the end of the JCPOA would mean the end of the extraordinary provisions for access, the IAEA would have little power to more than meekly request access to the alleged site. In most cases, the Iranians would simply say “no” and then ask what we plan to do about it.

There is, of course, the slim possibility that the IAEA in a dire emergency would request a “special inspection” — something that Iran is obligated to accept under its pre-JCPOA safeguards agreement. But, as the name indicates, special inspections are extraordinary events. The IAEA has asked for one in an adversarial setting only once: with North Korea in 1993. North Korea responded by announcing it would withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Even if Iran took a more measured approach, it could stall and attempt to negotiate restrictions. The resulting access would be lower and slower than what is routinely available under the JCPOA. And that assumes the IAEA is willing to stage such a showdown with Iran, something it was not willing to do with Syria, for example, and which would be a hard sell if the United States appeared to be making trouble.

All this could happen very quickly — just look at the timeline of North Korea’s nuclear program. Shortly after it threw out inspectors in April 2009, North Korea began building a new centrifuge facility at Yongbyon. An American scientist was shocked when he visited the site 18 months later to find that it was filled with 2,000 centrifuges, probably capable of enriching enough uranium for several bombs a year. The only question will be what sort of centrifuges Iran installs. The JCPOA slowed — but did not stop — Iran’s research on more advanced machines. If Iran were willing to fill that secret facility with its newest generation of centrifuges, even a small, 2,000-machine facility would be able to produce enough for many nuclear weapons a year.

Once Iran has enough material on hand, it could quickly make that material into nuclear weapons that could arm its missile — including what I presume will be, in short order, an ICBM similar to North Korea’s Hwasong-14. The United States has sanctioned Iranian specialists for aiding North Korea’s development of a new heavy rocket engine, one that appears related to the first stage of the newest North Korean missiles. And images of the Hwasong-14’s upper-stage engine already bear a striking similarity to the upper stage of Iran’s space launchers.

In 1998, the Rumsfeld Commission famously predicted that North Korea and Iran could “inflict major destruction on the U.S. within about five years of a decision to acquire such a capability.” That was a worst-case scenario then. It was also nearly 20 years ago. How much of a head start do you think Iran has? One consolation: Due to the rotation of the earth, Iran would need a slightly more powerful missile than the Hwasong-14 to reach the United States. So, you know, cross your fingers and hope not to die.

Look, nothing says Tehran must respond to a collapse of the Iran deal by building nuclear weapons. The Iranians have already indicated that if the Europeans continue to adhere to the deal, they will let the United States walk away while continuing to respect the agreement, including the IAEA inspections. I desperately hope that EU sanctions relief is enough to sustain the political coalition in Tehran that supports the agreement. Maybe the supreme leader’s fatwa against the bomb is for real. Maybe Mohammad Javad Zarif deeply believes in nuclear disarmament. Maybe cyberattacks will save us. Go ahead, talk yourself into it.

On the other hand, don’t underestimate our capacity to waste time persuading ourselves that things are fine while we can’t figure out what to do. North Korea has been openly discussing the development of a nuclear-armed ICBM for many years. Despite the obvious signs this was coming, we managed to do nothing while believing that future was further off than it turned out to be.

I understand that the Iran deal fell short of the total humiliation that some people wanted to inflict upon the Iranians. I, too, wanted to see if Rouhani could give himself a “Steve Bannon.” But reality is always a bit disappointing. (That link is NSFW, not even if you work in the White House.)

So don’t fool yourself into thinking we’re getting a better deal, let alone that one. The JCPOA looks the way it does because the Iranians had a lot of leverage, not because Barack Obama wanted to secretly impose Islamic law. The George W. Bush administration would have been happy to get the same deal, something that Rex Tillerson, H.R. McMaster, and other officials have tacitly admitted through gritted teeth.

The notion that there is a better deal to be had if only Mike Pence shows his “resolve face” is a partisan fable. That’s the logic of walking away from the Agreed Framework with North Korea, shutting down inspections and invading Iraq, and repealing and replacing Obamacare. Every time the people selling this snake oil get it wrong, they act like no one could see it coming. Everyone thought North Korea would collapse. Everyone thought there were weapons in Iraq. Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.

Well, don’t say you couldn’t see this coming. If we abandon the JCPOA, the choice belongs to Tehran. Iran can do everything that North Korea is already doing if it wants. And I worry that, sooner or later, Tehran will. So I am telling you now: If you like North Korea’s nuclear-armed ICBM, you are going to love walking away from the Iran deal.

Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk

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