The Myth of a ‘Better’ Iran Deal
The Obama administration didn’t botch negotiations with Tehran. And Trump isn’t going to be able to get something tougher.
Deal or no deal
Whether or not there was (or is) any deal that would satisfy JCPOA opponents, an arrangement that permanently dismantled Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, eliminated the country’s ballistic missile program, and ended all Iranian misbehavior in the region was not achievable in 2015. This was the case for at least three reasons.
First, there was insufficient international support to insist on maximalist demands. During the JCPOA talks, the Obama administration succeeded in forging consensus among our international partners in favor of significant, long-term constraints on Iran’s ability to produce highly enriched uranium and weapons-grade plutonium, as well as support for the most intrusive inspections regime ever negotiated. At the outset of negotiations, the Obama administration attempted to go further, aiming for an agreement that would have eliminated Iranian domestic uranium enrichment altogether. It proved infeasible. There was simply no appetite among the other members of the P5+1 for insisting on conditions requiring a permanent dismantlement of Iran’s civilian nuclear infrastructure, nor international support for imposing even harsher economic sanctions aimed at achieving this objective.
There was also no agreement among the P5+1 to push for binding restrictions on Iran’s ballistic-missile program (which serves conventional retaliatory purposes, not just hypothetical nuclear ones), and there was strong resistance to folding all of Iran’s regional misbehavior into the talks. Indeed, our partners believed (as did the U.S. negotiating team) that attempting to integrate Iran’s regional behavior into talks risked weakening the deal rather than strengthening it by giving Tehran leverage — i.e., the ability to trade concessions on some regional policies for weaker nuclear constraints. As threatening as Iran’s conventional missiles and support for terrorism and militancy were (and are), there was widespread agreement that all these activities would be exponentially more dangerous if Iran possessed nuclear weapons. For that reason, the Obama administration remained laser-focused on securing a good nuclear deal while finding other ways to push back against Iran’s regional mischief, including targeted sanctions outside the nuclear domain and unprecedented levels of security assistance to Israel and Arab Gulf states.
In this environment, an attempt by the Obama administration to unilaterally impose “better” terms through additional nuclear-related sanctions would have backfired. Iran’s trading partners complied with sweeping U.S. sanctions despite significant costs to their own economies because they agreed with Obama’s objectives; indeed, Washington rarely had to enforce secondary sanctions to produce compliance. But with a good nuclear deal within reach, the international community was not willing to accept indefinite economic sacrifices, let alone more pain, in search of illusory perfection. Consequently, if Obama had insisted on a set of conditions that most members of the international community viewed as unreasonable, it wouldn’t have worked.
In the 1990s, for example, when there was no global consensus on Iran, the European Union ignored U.S. secondary sanctions targeting investments in Iran’s energy sector, threatened retaliation and referral to the World Trade Organization, and passed “blocking statutes” prohibiting companies from complying with U.S. law. In 2015, maximalist U.S. demands and unilateral sanctions would not have tightened the noose around Iran. Instead, it would have produced a major clash between the United States, on the one hand, and China, the EU, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and Turkey, on the other, weakening multilateral pressure and benefiting Tehran.
Second, even if the Obama administration had somehow managed to hold the international community together, additional sanctions (or military threats) aimed at forcing the Iranian regime to make an existential choice would not have made Tehran cry uncle. There is no question that nuclear sanctions — especially major oil-related sanctions imposed by the United States and the EU in 2012 — took a serious toll on the Iranian economy. Between 2012 and 2015, Iran lost around $160 billion in oil revenue, and Iran’s economy was perhaps 15 to 20 percent smaller in 2015 than it otherwise would have been if 2012 growth trajectories had continued. And yet, during the Iran-Iraq war, Iran absorbed more than $600 billion in economic damages and hundreds of thousands of casualties — and it still took eight years for the regime to settle for a tie. There is simply no evidence that the regime in 2015 would have buckled.
Moreover, despite the tremendous pressure Tehran was under prior to the JCPOA, Iranian leaders viewed total capitulation as a bigger danger to their rule than additional international pressure. The regime had invested more than $100 billion over the years in mastering uranium-enrichment technology and defending Iran’s “nuclear rights.” And the regime’s revolutionary identity was (and remains) defined by opposition to the United States, Israel, and the West. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and other Iranian hard-liners would have perceived demands to permanently dismantle the Iran’s civilian nuclear infrastructure, disarm the country’s conventional retaliatory capabilities (ballistic missiles), and abandon regional “resistance” as graver threats to the regime’s legitimacy and survival than additional sanctions or even a military strike. They would not have caved. And had the Obama administration insisted on a maximalist position and raised the threat level, the regime would have played on the assault by “arrogant powers” to rally public support against the Great Satan. That was especially true after Hassan Rouhani won the presidency in 2013. Rouhani ran on a platform of reintegration into the global economy. Had the United States responded to his ascendance and the window it provided for a nuclear compromise with escalating sanctions and saber-rattling, it would have made it even easier for Iranian officials opposed to any accommodation with Washington to portray America as irreconcilably hostile. Hard-liners in the regime would’ve been strengthened, not weakened.
Finally, even if it would have theoretically been possible to bring the regime to its knees, critics have to contend with another reality: time. As negotiations entered their final phase in 2013 to 2015, there simply was not enough time for pressure to work before the nuclear clock struck midnight. According to open-source estimates, Iran’s “breakout” time — the time it would theoretically take to produce one nuclear bomb’s worth of weapons-grade uranium — fell from around 6 months in 2010 to one or two months by mid-2013. An interim nuclear agreement reached between the P5+1 and Iran in the fall of 2013 put temporary caps on Iranian enrichment levels, expanding the breakout cushion to about two or three months and buying some time to negotiate a comprehensive accord.
Yet if JCPOA talks had collapsed, and Iran had resumed its nuclear progress, the breakout time would likely have fallen to near zero within a year. The Iranians were also poised to complete construction of the Arak heavy-water research reactor within about a year, opening a potential plutonium pathway to a nuclear weapon. Consequently, had the Obama negotiation failed to reach a comprehensive agreement, Iran was in a position to move rapidly toward a nuclear point of no return before an enhanced pressure campaign culminated. The United States, Israel, and the world would have been confronted with the fateful choice of living with an Iranian nuclear bomb or bombing Iran long before conditions were ripe for producing the mythical better deal. (And for those who may think there was or is a neat and enduring American or Israeli military solution to Iran’s nuclear program, I can tell you — as the former Pentagon official with responsibility for overseeing contingency plans for Iran — there wasn’t and there isn’t.)