Will We Let Iran, Like Russia, Violate Its Nuclear Pact?

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In a major speech on Thursday, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued what amounted to a warning of things to come. He called the U.S. account of Iranian obligations under the nuclear framework agreement “faulty, incorrect and contrary to the substance of the negotiations,” effectively stating that Tehran offered exactly zero concessions at Lausanne. “Nothing has happened yet,” he said. Adding insult to injury, he noted that any “unconventional inspection or monitoring which would make Iran into a special case would not be acceptable” in a final deal.

Previously, President Obama had said that the nuclear framework agreement between Iran and the P5+1 last week will provide “the most robust and intrusive inspections and transparency regime ever negotiated for any nuclear program in history.” Unfortunately, past American efforts to enforce arms control agreements offer reason to doubt that the United States will actually hold Iran accountable for any violations–just as Khamenei’s speech suggests that Tehran will take full advantage of this.

One 1987 arms control agreement between the United States and Russia is a case in point.

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which requires both Washington and Moscow to eliminate ground-launched missiles with a range of 500 kilometers to 5,500 km, marked the culminating point of a tense Cold War standoff and was a key milestone toward its end. Yet for years, Russia has sought to subvert it.

In 2005, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov asked his American counterpart, Donald Rumsfeld, for his views about the possibility of Moscow’s withdrawal from the INF. The discussion was not merely academic. As the Financial Times reported at the time, “The fact that Russia’s military establishment was considering such a radical break with a pillar of the international arms control regime reflected a serious deterioration in relations between Russia and the West.”

In subsequent years, Russia would continue to express discontent with the treaty. In 2006, Ivanov called the treaty a relic of the Cold War. In 2007, he said that Russia was weaker because of it, while President Vladimir Putin asserted that it should be transformed into a global treaty. In 2008 the Bush Administration joined with Russian in an effort to do just that at the United Nations, with no takers.

In May 2012, after a failed attempt the year before, Russia successfully test-launched the RS-26 Rubezh (Russian for “frontier”) missile at a distance of 5,800 km — a distance far enough to qualify as an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which the INF does not prohibit. But subsequent tests of the Rubezh featured a modified, heavier payload that reduced its range to approximately 2,000 km, which the INF Treaty does prohibit, thereby signaling a prior, longer-term Russian intention to violate it.

In 2013, the Obama administration inexplicably dismissed claims that the Rubezh test-launch may have violated the INF. It was not until January 2014 that American officials shifted course and informed NATO of a potential Russian INF violation, and not until July of the same year that the State Department officially accused Russia of violating the Treaty.

In congressional testimony last month, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter further acknowledged the violations. “The INF Treaty is a two-sided treaty,” he said. “They said they wouldn’t do something. We say we wouldn’t do something. And they’ve done what they weren’t supposed to do.”

This sad case study offers useful lessons for any prospective nuclear deal with Iran. While Moscow telegraphed its intentions, the United States ignored that reality. After Russia breached the treaty, the Obama White House initially refused to acknowledge that it had done so. After the administration finally acknowledged Russian violations, no consequences followed.

Similarly, for decades, Tehran has violated its nuclear commitments — and the United States has failed to hold it accountable.

Since the 1980s, Iran has routinely flouted its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). In 2003, in response to international pressure, Iran signed — and quickly violated — the Additional Protocol, a set of regulations aimed at strengthening the NPT’s provisions by providing the International Atomic Energy Agency with increased access rights to suspected nuclear sites.

When Tehran and the P5+1 signed the interim agreement known as the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) in November 2013, Iran proceeded to violate both its letter and its spirit. The regime in Tehran accelerated key aspects of its nuclear program during negotiations while continuing to brutalize its own people and destabilize the region.

But rather than conceding that Iran’s cheating and stonewalling are indicative of the regime’s bad faith, the administration ignored or justified away its behavior, giving Tehran little reason to fear the consequences of violating any future deal.

The framework agreement, contra President Obama’s hyperbolic endorsement, compounds this error. Rather than inhibit Iranian cheating, the deal likely would facilitate it.

Indeed, under the agreement, Tehran’s nuclear infrastructure would remain in place. Sanctions may be lifted before the regime has fulfilled its commitments, thus removing any incentive for continued compliance. Most of the deal’s provisions would expire after only 10 or 15 years. The agreement would not provide the “snap” or “anytime anywhere” inspections that are indispensable for any verification effort. And despite U.S. statements to the contrary, Iran has rejected full adherence to the Additional Protocol.

These developments suggest that Tehran plans to follow in Moscow’s footsteps and ultimately breach any final agreement it reaches, and cast doubt upon whether the Obama administration is genuinely committed to enforcing a deal. And it is precisely for this reason that the United States must insist on a good final agreement with Iran that actually prevents the regime from acquiring a nuclear weapon and institutes appropriate safeguards that ensures the regime’s compliance.

But when all is said and done, a key difference still remains between Iran and Russia. Whereas Moscow has already acquired and tested the weapons it pledged to forswear, Tehran has not yet acquired a nuclear weapon. In the time that remains for negotiations, the United States should recommit itself to preventing that outcome.

Ambassador Eric Edelman is a former undersecretary of defense for policy and a board member at the Foreign Policy Initiative.

Tzvi Kahn is a senior policy analyst at the Foreign Policy Initiative.

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