Despite the saga over Hillary Clinton’s emails, Donald Trump’s sprint to front-runner status in the Republican presidential race and some interesting pennant races, the news this summer has never drifted far from the nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
That’s because it’s a big deal. And a tough one to assess.
I’ve worked hard not to be reflexive about that assessment. Even when I’ve been critical, I’ve allowed that I know how hard this issue really is.
Over the past several weeks my personal thoughts and emotions about the deal have been sorting themselves out through a three-step process: first anger, which admittedly still lingers; then recognition, the product of assessing domestic and global political realities; and finally determination, a less emotional and more reasoned calculus on a way forward.
That’s a lot for one column, so let me take these three stages one at a time.
Today, anger, and that’s anger over both process and substance.
First, there was blatant (and conscious) overpromising by President Obama’s administration. We were going to substantially dismantle the Iranian nuclear program. The hardened centrifuge facility at Fordow and the plutonium reactor at Arak had no place in a peaceful nuclear program. No deal could be considered effective without including Iran’s nuclear-capable ballistic missiles. The Iranians would have to come clean about their past efforts to actually craft a bomb. Inspections would be anywhere, anytime.
These positions kept potential critics at bay during the negotiations, but their hedging or outright exclusion in the final agreement created a maddening gap between promise and performance.
Then, beyond these headlines, there was the fine print of the agreement and some sidebar arrangements, which have been trickling out as the minutiae of the deal have been studied and dissected. I must admit that I wasn’t prepared for a U.S. promise to help the Iranians produce nuclear fuel or to protect the Iranian nuclear program against third-party sabotage. Color me surprised, too, for the late insertion of ballistic missiles into the agreement, not as a way to limit Iran’s nuclear delivery systems, but to end sanctions and limits on Tehran’s missile development program. Ditto the lifting of the embargo on conventional arms deliveries to the Islamic Republic.
Happily, the deal creates a mechanism for “snapback” sanctions that avoids potential Russian or Chinese vetoes in New York, but it also seems to create a grandfather clause for any contracts signed with Iran before the snapback process goes into effect and then explicitly allows Iran to abrogate the entire agreement if any sanctions are reimposed. Not exactly a user-friendly formula.
Then there is the definition of access, as in international inspectors can “access” suspect sites. Apparently the common English meaning of the word access will not apply here as inspectors are not guaranteed that they can actually enter such sites. We have now learned that the international inspectors (who cannot include any Americans because the Iranians say they cannot) will outsource the taking of soil samples at the weapons development site at Parchin to the Iranians themselves.
The concessionary mood that continued after the deal suggests what life will be like post-agreement. Kassim Soleimani, head of Iran’s deadly Quds Force and still sanctioned from international travel, was recently welcomed to Moscow for discussions. The Russians then closed a deal to sell the Iranians the S-300 surface-to-air missile system, a violation of the spirit if not the actual language of the current arms embargo, and a sale sure to complicate the regional balance in the Gulf.
The Iranians, for their part, apparently felt emboldened enough to do some suspicious landscaping at Parchin, the site they will themselves later inspect. An IRGC brigadier announced massive ballistic war games. And a deputy foreign minister indicated that Tehran will seek the release of 19 Iranian “political prisoners” being held in the United States. Made me wonder if all this was the Persian equivalent of an extended middle finger.
Then, of course, there was the selling of the deal here in the United States. We were told that accepting this deal wasn’t even a close call, its merits were so obvious compared to other alternatives. We were told that opponents of the deal should be discounted because many of them had supported the war in Iraq. Besides, so-called hardliners here were making common cause with hardliners in Teheran. (Hmmm — in my experience, people often resort to ad hominem attacks when they aren’t that sure of their arguments.)
We were then told that the only alternative to this deal was war — if not immediately, then soon. I found it really hard to reconcile what we had been told for more than a year — that no deal was better that a bad deal — with the position that now it was this deal or inevitable conflict.
And so it went. Not for the first time, I felt like I had just been treated to a bait-and-switch at the large appliance department at Sears. And I’m pretty much reacting now the way I did when that first happened.
Anger can be a useful emotion; it’s built into our genetic code to help with self preservation. But it can also be destructive, even when it is justified.
Next, phase two on my road to recovery: recognition.
The Iran Deal Leads to Bad Places
Sometimes you can live with bad details if you’ve got the big idea right. I suspect that that’s the case in our normalization of relations with Cuba. Lots of folks have pointed to the fine print there saying that we didn’t push the Castros hard enough for concessions on human rights and political freedoms. Probably so, but the long-term effects of an island of 11 million repressed people snuggling up to a nation of 320 million democrats with an economy hundreds of times larger than theirs are fairly predictable and positive.
But the Iran deal was going to be a near-run thing either way. The specifics of this deal really matter, and they matter in at least three dimensions.
The first is the core element of the agreement itself, the part that the president is asking us to focus on. New York Times columnist Tom Friedman summarized it this way after 45 minutes with Mr. Obama: “Judge this agreement on whether or not it prevents Iran from getting a nuclear weapon in the next 10 years.”
There are arguments that the deal is actually insufficient for even that narrowly defined, time-limited task but, frankly, of the three elements I’m going to describe, this is the strongest. Even with the enumerated shortcomings of this element, the impacts of other elements are simply worse.
One of these is time. If the agreement is honored and works as advertised, in 10 years we will have an Iran where deal constraints are sunsetting with an industrial-strength nuclear complex permanently on the threshold of a nuclear weapon. That’s what we negotiated, and that’s actually a more important consideration than what we may or may not have stopped for the deal’s first 10 years.
And then there are the more immediate non-nuclear implications of the agreement — what it means for all the other aspects of Iranian behavior so troubling to us in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, and what Iran’s leaders are doing with regard to terrorism, Hamas and Hezbollah.
Iran is doing all that now as an isolated, impoverished, renegade state. What might it do if it were no longer isolated, no longer considered renegade and considerably richer than it is today?
As Vice President Biden might put it, this agreement is a “big no-fooling deal,” and most Americans and most members of Congress oppose it (from my point of view, with good reason).
The House will almost certainly reject the deal; the Senate is iffy since deal opponents lack the 60 votes needed for cloture, but it’s still possible that both chambers will vote no. If they do, the president has promised to veto their rejection. If Congress fails to muster the two-thirds vote to override (as seems likely), we will be left with the most important international agreement since the end of the Cold War looking like Obamacare Redux, except that this bill couldn’t even get approved along straight party lines.
I am no more sanguine about the future even if Congress does somehow manage to override Mr. Obama’s veto. Certainly Congress has the right to do so, and American history is filled with examples of the executive being sent back to amend proposed agreements.
But that would be a heavy lift. Our side of the negotiations with Iran had five other members, and they have already voted their approval of the deal at the U.N. Several have obscenely rushed trade delegations to Tehran in anticipation of an end to international economic sanctions. Our reopening the text for renegotiation would be incredibly irritating to them.
Still, we have a powerful economy to use as a tool of influence. And if this turns out so badly that further action needs to be taken down the road, no one will be turning to Chancellor Angela Merkel for an inventory of the German air force’s long-range bunker-busting capabilities. All eyes will be on us.
So we have a strong position and a strong argument, but I have no faith these are things that this administration would exploit. This administration has a habit of acting like the will of Congress was not controlling, and they have shown no stomach to re-engage the issue, cajole or pressure partners and allies or to reconfront the Iranians. The administration has staked its future on their deal, and their predictions of the dire geopolitical effects of the “hard no” of an overridden veto will sadly all come true because they will not act to make it otherwise.
As already noted, the effects of the “soft no” of the veto being sustained are also bad. The prospect of the deal surviving only through a clever parliamentary maneuver of Congress — being forced to vote against rather than for the proposition — has already put it in the 2017 Inauguration Day crosshairs of a variety of presidential candidates.
That would carry a cost too. Superpowers act most responsibly and effectively when they are consistent and predictable. The Obama administration has made much of its sharp turn from its predecessor in withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, undercutting not just U.S. forces there but the premises of previous American policy. And we’ve all seen how well that discontinuity has worked.
So my recognition is that, without some new thinking, we have only two destinations, and they are both bad places. Perhaps we should be determined to find an alternative.
Some Necessary Changes to a Bad Deal
Most Americans and most members of Congress oppose the nuclear deal with Iran. But because of global politics and the corner we have painted ourselves into, an outright rejection could even be worse.
So how about a “yes, but ” or — if it suits your temperament — a “no, unless ” In other words, there are things about the proposed deal that may be worth preserving, but only if we can add some things and take some other steps.
Of course, that requires a rejection of the “it’s this deal or war” meme and some serious negotiating between (as opposed to politicking by) Congress and the White House.
A standing congressional authorization for the use of military force should Iran seriously violate the agreement seems a no-brainer. The president has promised that all options would be on the table should Iran break out or sneak out, so why not cut to the chase, remind the Iranians of what “all options” really means and relieve this president and any of his successors of later time-consuming negotiations with Capitol Hill.
It seems equally obvious that lifting sanctions changes a lot of geopolitical calculations in the Middle East and some rebalancing, including military rebalancing, will be necessary. That means more arms for our Arab friends and for Israel. And, for the latter, I would include (as former administration adviser Dennis Ross suggests) a promise of the “MOP,” the 30,000-pound bunker-busting Massive Ordnance Penetrator capable of destroying the hardened Iranian nuclear facility at Fordow.
President Obama said that Fordow had no place in a peaceful nuclear program. He was right. It’s too small to make enough fissile material for nuclear energy, but it’s big enough to make enough for a weapon. Fordow somehow survived the negotiations (in an admittedly modified, but still reversible, form).
I feared giving the Israelis the MOP. I thought it gave them the means and the temptation to put America at war. On reflection, though, when it comes down to whom to trust on Fordow, I’ve decided it better to bet on our friends than on our adversaries.
American forces are part of the military balance in the region, and their continued strength — threatened by the last decade’s ops tempo, today’s budget cuts and tomorrow’s threat of sequestration — needs to be assured.
Whatever the deal may or may not do to the Iranian nuclear program, Iran’s ability to do mischief through proxies and conventional forces will be increased by the ending of international isolation, sanctions and the arms embargo. That the Navy has to gap its carrier coverage in the Gulf now should make a prima facie case that the cost of any deal must be making the DOD budget healthy. Period.
In that light, we also need the ability to meter the windfall that will come to the Iranians from the future sale of oil should we see that it is being used to support terrorism, threaten Israel, bolster dictators such as Syria’s Bashar Assad or destabilize countries like Iraq or Yemen. Whatever the economic arguments for easing restrictions on American energy exports, they are now joined by the strategic argument that lower energy prices can help limit Iranian (and Russian) adventurism.
Within the nuclear deal itself, there are short-, mid- and long-term issues that need to be addressed, and they translate to the three critical components of a nuclear arms program: weaponization, delivery systems and fissile material.
The weaponization component is immediate: The IAEA is due answers from Tehran by mid-October on previous efforts to design an actual bomb and must report out by mid-December. Ideally, congressional action would be delayed until then since Iranian forthrightness (or lack thereof) will say a lot about how the overall deal will be implemented.
At a minimum, Congress should demand the administration publicly account for the access Iran did (or did not) provide to facilities, documents and scientists, and consider this accounting in any congressional decision to permanently end (as opposed to the president temporarily suspending) sanctions.
In the mid-term, at year eight, international sanctions against the Iranian ballistic missile program will end, an almost-inexplicable result of eleventh hour negotiations in Vienna since Iran had declared this off the table when the U.S. earlier attempted to restrict the program.
Congress should direct the executive to aggressively apply tough and broad secondary U.S. sanctions against any state, business or entity that assists Tehran’s ballistic missile program before or after the eight-year mark.
The long-term issue is the production of fissile material.
The Iranians will be allowed to deploy far more capable centrifuges in year eight of the agreement. Limits on the number of centrifuges expire at year 10. Limits on the quality and volume of stockpiled enriched uranium expire at year 15.
The president has admitted that by then, breakout time — the time needed to dash to a weapon’s worth of highly enriched uranium — would be near zero. This is more an act of faith than statecraft.
We wouldn’t concede these things to today’s Iran; why do we presume that tomorrow’s Iran will be different? U.S. adherence to this course should be conditioned on the totality of Iranian behavior over the next decade. Congress should preserve the option that if “that Iran” looks like “this Iran,” bets are off, at least as far as the U.S. is concerned.
Ideally that would be a product of the executive formally renegotiating the terms of the agreement. With or without that, Congress should express its will in American statute. That’s inconsistent with the deal that’s been agreed to, but the American president has characterized this as merely an executive agreement, not a treaty, and the Iranian president has said that it is not legally binding.
Even with these changes, the Iranian nuclear deal is far from a safe bet. But these changes will make it a safer bet, putting some steel — and perhaps some political consensus — into the way forward.
It might even have some staying power, representing as it would the will of America rather than just that of an outgoing president.
• Gen. Michael Hayden is a former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency.