It's Debatable

Intervention or Restraint? A Washington debate on pressing issues for policymakers.

Who Benefits From a New Iran Deal?

A revival of the nuclear deal might only delay an Iranian bomb—but it could help the West deal with the looming winter energy crisis.

By , a senior fellow with the Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy program at the Stimson Center, and , deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian (R) attends a press conference with Josep Borell, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (L) at the foreign ministry in Iran's capital Tehran on June 25.
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian (R) attends a press conference with Josep Borell, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (L) at the foreign ministry in Iran's capital Tehran on June 25.
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian (R) attends a press conference with Josep Borell, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (L) at the foreign ministry in Iran's capital Tehran on June 25. ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images
It's Debatable

Matthew Kroenig: Hi, Emma! I hope you are enjoying the last few hours of summer. I teach my first class of the fall semester at Georgetown University this afternoon, so my fun is done.

Emma Ashford: Wow, classes start early this year! Still, I suppose you’ll enjoy getting back to indoctrinating America’s brightest young minds with all your bad ideas.

Just kidding. But it’s definitely a sign that summer is winding down, and it’s going to be a busy autumn and winter: The war in Ukraine is 6 months old, Europe’s gas crisis is starting to escalate, there are growing divisions between Eastern and Western Europeans on how to approach the war in Ukraine going forward, and apparently, U.S.-Iran nuclear talks are back on.

Matthew Kroenig: Hi, Emma! I hope you are enjoying the last few hours of summer. I teach my first class of the fall semester at Georgetown University this afternoon, so my fun is done.

Emma Ashford: Wow, classes start early this year! Still, I suppose you’ll enjoy getting back to indoctrinating America’s brightest young minds with all your bad ideas.

Just kidding. But it’s definitely a sign that summer is winding down, and it’s going to be a busy autumn and winter: The war in Ukraine is 6 months old, Europe’s gas crisis is starting to escalate, there are growing divisions between Eastern and Western Europeans on how to approach the war in Ukraine going forward, and apparently, U.S.-Iran nuclear talks are back on.

Plus, our last column correctly predicted that Russia might see more internal political tension after the Ukrainian bombing of an airfield in Crimea. In fact, there’s been a series of attacks from Ukrainian drones and covert actions that make Crimea feel far less safe to Russians than previously. There was also a very interesting incident last week, when journalist Darya Dugina, daughter of Russian archconservative Aleksandr Dugin, was assassinated near Moscow by a car bomb.

Dugin is a fairly infamous Russian nationalist thinker; he’s been portrayed in some Western media as an inspiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s policies, but those mostly overstate his influence, which has often been more conservative and nationalistic than Putin. The Russian Federal Security Service claims it was a Ukrainian attack, but given its track record, many are suspicious that it might have been a false flag attack by the Russian government itself to keep elites in line or simply other domestic infighting. A very puzzling incident.

MK: I think we were prescient on that one. Maybe we should rename the column Nostradamus! What should we correctly predict this week? Let’s start with Iran.

It looks like Tehran, Washington, and other world powers are very close to reentering a version of the 2015 nuclear deal. To entice Iran to come back after the former Trump administration pulled out, U.S. President Joe Biden is offering Iran several new sweeteners (including guaranteed long-term economic contracts and allowing Iran to keep a larger quantity of nuclear materials inside Iran to better restart its nuclear program if a future administration pulls out), which make this deal a bit weaker than the previous accord.

To be honest, I have mixed feelings about it. On one hand, I think this is a weak deal that won’t resolve the problem. On the other hand, I don’t think the Biden administration is open to tougher approaches that I think could work better. So if our only choice is between a nuclear-armed Iran this autumn or this lousy deal (which I think will lead to a nuclear-armed Iran in 2030), then I guess I’ll take the deal.

EA: I’m surprised to hear you say that. I would have thought you would oppose an Iran deal under any circumstances. But I do think you’re right that Biden is not open to, as you rather euphemistically put it, “tougher approaches.”

The problem really is that everything except military force has already been tried, and none of it really worked, except for the period when Iran and the United States were both active participants in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). During that period, Iran’s nuclear program didn’t advance. Otherwise, U.S. policies have done nothing to stop Iran advancing toward a bomb. What hasn’t been tried?

Once a country can make nuclear fuel for reactors, it can make nuclear fuel for weapons.

MK: I would support a good deal. The most important point for people to understand about the Iranian nuclear challenge (and one that is often overlooked) is that there is a big difference between a truly peaceful nuclear program (operating reactors for energy or research purposes) and making nuclear fuel (like Iran’s uranium enrichment program).

Once a country can make nuclear fuel for reactors, it can make nuclear fuel for weapons. So U.S. nonproliferation policy going all the way back to former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower has been to prohibit the spread of fuel-making capabilities—even to friends and allies. If Iran truly wants a peaceful program, it can have it. It just cannot make the fuel. It should import fuel from France, Russia, or another more advanced nuclear power just like the dozens of countries around the world—such as Mexico, the United Arab Emirates, and Vietnam—with truly peaceful nuclear programs.

EA: It’s certainly not ideal for Iran to have domestic enrichment capabilities. But the Iranians have always refused to give it up, partly as it’s a sign of prestige and national pride in Iran and partly out of fears that other countries could shut off fuel supplies. For a regime that’s been under almost constant sanctions since its founding, that’s a perfectly rational fear. Which is why the original negotiators of the JCPOA eventually settled on a domestic Iranian enrichment program under strict International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards and international scrutiny.

MK: But there is no good reason for Iran to make nuclear fuel other than to make nuclear weapons. South Korea, for example, has a thriving nuclear industry, but it does not make its own fuel. So the JCPOA compromised on an important nonproliferation principle for a rogue state. And the limits on the program were not even permanent. They only bought the world a few years of respite. After the nuclear limits sunset, the world will have to face this problem again.

So, the goal for negotiations with Iran should be for Iran to shut down its uranium enrichment program. There were eight United Nations Security Council resolutions demanding that Iran suspend enrichment. Then the world gave up in 2015 and signed this lousy deal that allows Iran to make nuclear fuel.

So, the alternative would be to insist that Iran shut down its enrichment facilities, and if it refuses to do so, then as a last resort, the U.S. Defense Department can shut down its facilities for them.

Even if you succeed in destroying these facilities, they’ll be rebuilt—likely in harder to reach places.

EA: Again with the euphemisms. You should just say what you mean: You think Biden should bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities and destroy them.

There are a lot of problems with that approach, not least of which is the idea that starting a war against one of the biggest countries in the Middle East—at the same time as we’re arming and funding a major proxy war in Europe and worrying more about China—is utter madness. I think you’re getting your opinion pieces mixed up: You’ve written that the United States should bomb Iran and that the United States should be ready to fight Russia and China at the same time, but I don’t think even you would want to fight three wars at once!

And then there’s the practical concern: Even if you succeed in destroying these facilities, they’ll be rebuilt—likely in harder to reach places. Does Washington just keep doing the same thing? I don’t see how this approach ends.

MK: As economist Thomas Schelling and other strategists have argued, military threats are most effective when they don’t have to be used. If there were a credible military option on the table, then it is much more likely that Iran would agree to a good deal.

EA: Do you think former U.S. President Donald Trump didn’t make credible military threats against Iran?

I don’t think Iran would want to rebuild after a strike. It spent billions  and suffered decades of sanctions and a military attack, and then it concludes, “Let’s do that again?” I don’t think so.

MK: As you will likely agree, the Trump administration sometimes did not have clearly articulated strategies for important issues, including on how the use of military force related to its nonproliferation diplomacy with Iran.

But, returning to your above points, striking Iran’s nuclear facilities as a last resort would not be madness or starting a war; it would be bombing four buildings. Iran would likely retaliate, but, like we saw with Trump’s strike against Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, it would not result in World War III.

And Iran cannot build in harder-to-reach places. The facility at Qom is buried in the side of the mountain under 295 feet of rock. The Islamic Republic has already done its best, but it still cannot escape the United States’ massive ordnance penetrator.

I don’t think Iran would want to rebuild after a strike. It spent billions of dollars and suffered through decades of sanctions and a military attack, and then it concludes, “Hey, let’s do that again?” I don’t think so. And if Iran does, the Pentagon can just destroy its illegal nuclear facilities again.

EA: Those are interesting hypotheses, but I’m not really sure I want to test any of them. Iran apparently responded to the killing of Soleimani by attempting to assassinate Trump’s former national security advisor, John Bolton. That’s unacceptable. Likewise, I doubt most people’s response if a foreign country bombed several key industrial facilities inside the United States would be: “Oh, it’s four buildings.” The odds of broader conflict after a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities are high.

Really, the point is this: The withdrawal from the JCPOA was a disaster. Maximum pressure didn’t work. And the Iranians could probably make a bomb any time they wanted to at this point. Anything that helps to stabilize the situation is better than nothing at this point.

MK: Again, the goal of a credible military option is to get a good deal that actually solves the problem, so let’s turn back to the deal at hand and put you on the spot to defend it. The important limits on Iran’s nuclear program begin expiring in 2025 and expire altogether in 2030. What do you propose that Washington does then?

EA: The extra limitations Iran agreed to under the JCPOA will expire, but Iran always agreed to normal monitoring of its nuclear program by the IAEA after the JCPOA expires. The deal doesn’t shift from strong safeguards to nothing by 2030; it just shifts from an extra-strong monitoring program to the regular monitoring that all nonnuclear weapons states in the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) agree to. Besides, all parties can start negotiating an extension as soon as they reenter the deal.

MK: You are overlooking the most important weakness of the deal. In 2025, Iran can begin deploying advanced centrifuges. In 2030, there are zero limits on Iran’s uranium enrichment program. It can build multiple enrichment facilities, install tens of thousands of advanced centrifuges, and enrich to weapons-grade levels—and still be in compliance with the terms of the deal. As former U.S. President Barack Obama himself admitted, when the deal’s limits expire, the time it would take Iran to build nuclear weapons “shrinks almost down to zero.”

So the monitoring is irrelevant at that point other than to watch Iran build nuclear weapons.

And how are new negotiations going to work? The central reason Iran agreed to the 2015 deal and to this new version is because it wanted sanctions relief—and even getting these deals were difficult. But this deal will lift the sanctions. The world will have zero leverage. Why would Iran agree to additional limits in 2030 when the current limits expire?

The United States and other parties have exactly the same leverage in 2030 that they’ve always had: New sanctions can be imposed, military action remains possible, and world influence can be brought to bear on the Iranians.

EA: Well, the time it would take Iran to build weapons now is close to zero. So I’ll take an imperfect deal with the chance for renewal over nothing. That sounds like exactly what you said at the start! But I do worry that you’re just biding your time until a new Republican president—or a more hawkish Democrat—comes into office who might be willing to take the military route.

And it’s worth sticking with the deal if it can be resurrected. The United States and other JCPOA parties have exactly the same leverage in 2030 that they have always had: New sanctions can be imposed, military action remains possible, and world influence can be brought to bear on the Iranians. The United States in particular could lift more sanctions in exchange for further concessions. In short, Washington is in no worse a situation in 2030 than it is in today—and there’s an intervening eight years where there may be common ground for further negotiations.

MK: If you think the Islamic Republic won’t be around in eight years, then I can imagine that bet paying off. Otherwise, it is hard to imagine. And the United States would be in a much worse position eight years from now. Iran will have complied with the deal that Washington designed. Its economy will have recovered and be intertwined with the rest of the world. There is less leverage to be had from threatening sanctions against a healthy economy than from promising to take a foot off the throat of an economy that is already on its back—which is the situation now. And if Washington can lift more sanctions for a better deal in 2030, then why not go ahead and get that better deal now?

EA: I never said that a better deal was possible, but it might be possible to negotiate an extension of these provisions. Again, the United States is no worse off in taking this deal, but it is potentially far worse off in terms of Iran’s nuclear development if it doesn’t.

And it will improve the ongoing energy crisis by dumping a lot of Iranian oil into the market. Energy prices are not too bad right now—other than Europe’s gas prices—but they will be much worse this winter. Some folks believe that Iran could add almost a million barrels of oil daily to world markets after the successful signing of a deal—and potentially produce two or three times that amount daily as production ramps up over the next year.

That’s a significant amount of extra oil in the global marketplace—somewhere between 1 and 5 percent of extra supply globally—which will undoubtedly help with some of the dislocations and price shocks associated with the war in Ukraine and Western sanctions. With winter looming on the horizon, every little bit helps, and this is more than a little. That might be one reason the Biden team has been willing to continue the negotiations this long, though I understand that the recent concessions mostly came from the Iranian side.

But honestly, at this point, it’s no surprise that pretty much only the Israelis are opposed to this deal. For the United States, Europe, Russia, and even China, jump-starting the JCPOA again is a no-brainer. And I’m not sure anyone should be too bothered about the opinion of a state that’s not even a member of the NPT because of its own not-so-secret nuclear program!

MK: It is not just the Israelis. I suspect every Republican in Congress will be opposed, and even some Democrats are raising tough questions. I doubt a Republican president in 2024 will remain in this deal.

While I prefer the pressure track and you prefer this deal, I think we probably agree that having a different Iran strategy every four years has not been good for U.S. foreign policy.

But this issue is not going away, so there will be plenty of opportunities to reengage this debate. For now, I need to update my syllabus. I hope at least one of us can enjoy a few more days of summer.

EA: That we can agree on. I predict that the growing partisan-ization of U.S. foreign policy—assuming that’s a real word—will be a huge threat to America’s ability to manage an increasingly complex world. I just hope I’m wrong this time.

Emma Ashford is a senior fellow with the Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy program at the Stimson Center, an adjunct assistant professor at Georgetown University, and the author of Oil, the State, and War.

  Twitter: @EmmaMAshford

Matthew Kroenig is deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His latest book is The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy From the Ancient World to the U.S. and China. Twitter: @matthewkroenig

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