The Next President Can Torch Obama's Iran Deal

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By FPI Board Member Eric Edelman, Robert Joseph, and Ray Takeyh

The Obama administration says that any nuclear agreement it negotiates between the United States and Iran will be binding on the president’s successors, while nearly every Republican presidential contender has insisted on re-evaluating the agreement, if not jettisoning it all together. Secretary of State John Kerry has rejected such claims, maintaining that future presidents are unlikely to “turn around and just nullify it.”

Yet the history of arms control demonstrates that controversial agreements are usually reviewed by incoming administrations. On at least three recent occasions, a new president ultimately annulled a landmark agreement that he determined was not serving the interests of the United States or was being violated by an adversary it was meant to restrain

The cornerstone of arms control in the 1970s was the SALT II accord. Building on the earlier negotiations of the Nixon/Ford administration, Jimmy Carter finally concluded the treaty on June 18, 1979 and submitted it to Senate for ratification. However, once the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, Carter withdrew the treaty from further consideration. Nonetheless, both the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to comply with its terms. The Reagan Administration’s review concluded that the agreement was “fatally flawed” but provisionally decided to abide by the unratified treaty. Ultimately, in light of indications of Soviet non-compliance and more importantly the need to move forward with a major strategic modernization program, it was set aside. In May 1986, the administration announced that “in the future, the United States must base decisions regarding its strategic force structure on the nature and magnitude of the threat posed by the Soviet strategic forces and not on standards contained in SALT structure.” Reagan determined that the wisest course was to abandon SALT II despite the fact that the agreement was long-standing and had been negotiated by both his Republican and Democratic predecessors.

In December 2001, another key element of the Cold War arms control architecture collapsed when President George W. Bush announced the U.S. intention to withdraw from the 1972 ABM Treaty—after making support for missile defense a pillar of his campaign. The reason for this action was clearly stated: given the emergence of new missile and nuclear threats from rogue states, the United States had to defend itself against attacks from countries like North Korea. The ABM Treaty—fashioned during the height of the U.S.-Soviet rivalry to ensure stability through mutual assured destruction—prohibited any defense of U.S. territory or population centers, leaving American cities vulnerable to missile attacks and nuclear blackmail. With the Cold War over, and with new nuclear threats from less stable and less predictable adversaries, the Bush administration considered it essential that the U.S. deploy effective missile defenses to deter and defend against the growing threat. Once more, it was determined that America’s interests would be best served by abrogating an agreement despite dire warnings that withdrawal would spark an arms race which, in fact, did not occur.

Upon assuming office, President George W. Bush’s review of the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea concluded that the agreement had essentially rewarded bad North Korean behavior, but that the U.S. would continue to abide by it so long as North Korea continued to fulfill its commitments. The U.S. ended its participation in December 2002 after Pyongyang was assessed to have undertaken a large-scale uranium enrichment program. In testimony to Congress, Clinton administration officials had earlier stated that any enrichment would be considered a material breach of the agreement. When confronted with evidence of its illicit procurement activities, North Korea initially denied, but then soon acknowledged the existence of the program—a program that made sense only in the context of producing fissile material for nuclear weapons. Following Pyongyang's confirmation that it was pursuing uranium enrichment, and after consulting with regional allies, President Bush stopped the delivery of heavy fuel oil to North Korea, leading to the demise of the agreement.

Most presidents prefer to adhere to the commitments negotiated by their predecessors. However, at times, the deficiencies of an agreement are so great that presidents reconsidered their patrimony. The emerging deal with Iran is likely to be one of the most unusual and contentious accords in the history of arms control. It will likely be embraced by the U.N. Security Council while greeted with skepticism, if not outright rejection, by Congress. It will be will be applauded by America’s rivals and adversaries, such as Russia and China, yet disclaimed by its closest allies such as Israel and the Gulf Arab states. Given the absence of domestic consensus on the deal and given that it is transacted with a profoundly unsavory regime, it is likely to be debated and its value questioned by many officeholders. This is particularly the case if the verification and monitoring provisions are considered inadequate in light of Iran’s record of denial, deception and cheating. Successor administrations may take a more questioning view about Iran’s adherence as the examples above suggest.

As the Obama administration concludes its negotiations with Iran, it would be wise to insist on stringent terms and clear consequences for cheating. After all, the longevity of the agreement will be determined less by the approbation of the UN than by future presidents who must judge whether it serves America’s interests.

Eric Edelman is a member of the Foreign Policy Initiative's board of directors, and a Distinguished Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, and served as Undersecretary for Policy, 2005-2009.

Robert Joseph served as Undersecretary for Arms Control, International Security, 2005-2007.

Ray Takeyh is Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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