FPI Bulletin: Amid Ambiguities in Iran Deal, Troubling Facts Persist

April 8, 2015

While the proposed nuclear framework agreement reached last week between Iran and the P5+1 leaves many pivotal questions unanswered, several facts about the deal are clear: Iran will emerge from the agreement as a threshold nuclear state, the risk of proliferation will increase, and Iran’s regional aggression will continue unabated. Moreover, America’s poor record in enforcing arms control agreements offers further reason to question the viability of a final deal. These troubling realities undermine the prospects for securing a deal with Iran that would enhance American security or achieve President Obama’s stated goal of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

A Threshold Nuclear State

At the outset of talks with Iran, lead U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman said that an effective agreement would require “a lot of dismantling of [Iranian nuclear] infrastructure” in order to give the United States “full confidence that Iran truly has a peaceful program.” Instead, the framework agreement allows Iran to maintain its entire nuclear infrastructure, although some of it will be temporarily deactivated. Under the deal, Tehran can retain 6,000 working centrifuges and would not dismantle Natanz, Fordow, Arak or any other nuclear facility — a far cry from past U.S. positions that Iran has no right to enrich uranium or maintain a heavy water reactor. After 10 to 15 years, the regime would be able to resume its nuclear activities with the full blessing of the international community.

In a Tuesday interview with NPR, President Obama acknowledged the threat such an arrangement would pose. “What is a more relevant fear,” he said, “would be that in year 13, 14, 15, they have advanced centrifuges that enrich uranium fairly rapidly, and at that point the breakout times would have shrunk almost down to zero” from the one-year breakout limit under the deal. In other words, the best-case scenario, according to the president himself, is that in just over a decade Iran will possess a far greater ability than it does today to produce weapons-grade uranium.

Nuclear Proliferation

The proliferation threat has two components. First, America’s regional allies such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey have expressed interest in acquiring their own nuclear weapons to counter the Iranian nuclear threat. This arms race would begin not when the nuclear deal expires in 10 to 15 years, but on the day the deal is signed, if not before, since it takes years to build a nuclear program from scratch. Riyadh in particular has already taken steps to develop its own nuclear facilities.

Second, the deal would become the new baseline for any other nuclear agreement in the Middle East and throughout the world. As Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal put it, “I’ve always said whatever comes out of these talks, we will want the same. So if Iran has the ability to enrich uranium to whatever level, it’s not just Saudi Arabia that’s going to ask for that. The whole world will be an open door to go that route without any inhibition, and that’s my main objection to this P5+1 process.”

In other words, if Iran’s reward for years of illicit nuclear activities is international approval of those activities, then law-abiding states will reasonably demand similar rights. Such an outcome would spell the effective collapse of the global nonproliferation regime.

Regional Aggression

In his NPR interview, President Obama said that while the negotiations are focusing exclusively on the nuclear file, “it is possible that if we sign this nuclear deal, we strengthen the hand of those more moderate forces inside of Iran.” Changes in the regime, he added, “may end up being an important byproduct of this deal.”

Unfortunately, the opposite is far more likely to be the case. Even proponents of the deal such as former Carnegie Endowment for International Peace president Jessica Mathews acknowledge that the end of sanctions would give Tehran the means to repress dissent at home and advance its pursuit of regional hegemony. “With sanctions lifted, Iran will have much more money to spend — some of it for destructive purposes,” she wrote in The New York Review of Books. “That, too, is a price of an agreement.” 

By delinking Iran’s nuclear ambitions from its regional ambitions, the Obama administration may undermine its efforts to thwart both. Tehran would receive the message that it has little reason to compromise if America muffles its criticism of the regime’s support of extremist proxies due to its desperation to reach a nuclear agreement.

A History of Failure to Enforce Nuclear Deals

Since the 1980s, Iran has repeatedly violated its international nuclear obligations, from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Additional Protocol to the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) and multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions. However, the United States has largely failed to hold Iran accountable for its actions.

Unfortunately, this inaction fits a historical pattern. In the most notable case, the United States ignored years of North Korean violations of its nuclear agreements, ultimately leading Pyongyang to detonate its first nuclear device in 2006. The inertia of policymakers stemmed in part from the fear of making decisions that would prove politically burdensome and force Americans to face uncomfortable truths about the nature of the North Korean regime, past U.S. policy, and the difficult choices ahead.

This record offers reason for concern that the United States lacks the resolve to break both Iran’s pattern of cheating and its own pattern of passivity.


By allowing Iran to become a threshold nuclear state, encouraging proliferation, and condoning Tehran’s regional aggression, the framework agreement not only would fail to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, but would fuel regional chaos for years to come. In the three months that remain for negotiations, the Obama administration should adopt a different approach, recommitting itself to a deal that actually dismantles Iran’s nuclear program and standing strong with America’s friends and allies in the region against Iranian hegemony.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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