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One year on, the Iran deal is still bad

A decade of nuclear negotiations with Iran were meant to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons, force Iran to reveal its past clandestine activities and impose permanent restrictions on Iran’s civil nuclear program.
[additional-authors]
July 26, 2016

A decade of nuclear negotiations with Iran were meant to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons, force Iran to reveal its past clandestine activities and impose permanent restrictions on Iran’s civil nuclear program. The deal was also supposed to create effective inspection mechanisms against any potential future breach. Regrettably, the Iran nuclear deal reached in July 2015 in Vienna failed to meet these goals; instead, it managed to impose only temporary restrictions on Tehran’s nuclear activities at the price of abandoning Western economic leverage.

Iran gets to keep its full-size nuclear-industrial complex and its ballistic missile program. The investigation into Iran’s past clandestine military-nuclear activities should not have been closed but is  even as Iran stonewalled investigators from United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Tehran is not required to let the IAEA interview its scientists or conduct on-site, intrusive inspections of its vast military-industrial complex. Without anywhere, anytime access, the only way to map out Iran’s past weaponization work, then, is by relying on intelligence — hardly a reassurance, in light of past intelligence failures on weapons of mass destruction programs in Iraq, Libya and North Korea.

[OPPOSING VIEW: Iran is still bad, the Iran deal is still good]

Leveraging its past nuclear experience, Iran will become a nuclear weapons threshold state by the time the nuclear deal expires in 2030. And as The Associated Press reported, in as few as 10 years, Iran will begin installing thousands of advanced centrifuges, enabling the regime to dramatically shrink its nuclear breakout time to barely a few weeks — much too brief for the international community to mount any meaningful nonmilitary response.

The Obama administration hopes that, now that Western sanctions are lifted, Tehran’s return to the world economy will transform the regime’s behavior, leading to improved relations with Washington and a more stable Middle East. The deal has already achieved the opposite: It has strengthened the most radical elements of the regime, including Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), by creating an economic windfall for their powerbase. The regime is channeling contracts to rebuild Iran’s battered infrastructure to the IRGC and the religious foundations controlled by Iran’s supreme leader, not to Iran’s fledgling private sector. Iran’s coming economic boom will enrich regime oligarchs, not ordinary Iranians.

Meanwhile, Washington’s desire to avoid any confrontation with Iran which might be used by the regime — unjustifiably — to walk away from its nuclear commitments has undermined Western support for human rights in Iran and limited its pushback against Iran’s troublesome regional behavior. Iran does not feel a similar constraint.

If Iran’s priorities were the welfare of its citizens and good relations in the region, then we would already see changes in Iran’s behavior toward its neighbors, and hints of an opening of its political environment. Instead, Tehran is enhancing its support for Syria’s Bashar Assad and delivering military support to Damascus, both to sustain the regime’s war effort and to arm its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah. Tehran is escalating regional tensions in Iraq, Bahrain and Yemen. It continues to arm and train Shia militias in Iraq, fueling sectarian tensions under the pretense of fighting the Islamic State. It fuels sectarian strife in the Gulf and battles a proxy war against Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Clearly the nuclear deal has strengthened the regime and its praetorians, making peaceful internal change unlikely.

It is this type of nefarious conduct that makes an Iranian nuclear bomb so dangerous. And yet, even without any change in this behavior, Iran’s paths to nuclear weapons will reopen as the deal’s nuclear restrictions begin to sunset. A nuclear weapons program has three components: nuclear fuel, a warhead and a delivery system. This is why the deal’s failure to permanently restrict Iran’s enrichment program and contain Iran’s ballistic missile program is problematic. Long-range ballistic missiles serve no other purpose than the delivery vehicles for unconventional weapons. Before the nuclear deal, United Nations Security Council resolutions prohibited Iran from conducting ballistic missile tests. A good deal should have established permanent limitations on the range and size of Iran’s arsenal, a moratorium on tests, and sanctions against missile technology procurement. Instead, the nuclear agreement gutted U.N. restrictions, enabling Iran to continue its program with impunity.

Eventually, Iran will have a nuclear-industrial complex capable of enriching weapons-grade uranium within weeks, presumably with the know-how to put it into a warhead. Meanwhile, it will also continue to perfect the delivery systems to carry a nuclear payload to target. Tehran will also have a prosperous economy able to sustain its aggressive ambitions and cushion the blow of potential new sanctions if it again violates the nuclear nonproliferation regime. Without its economic toolbox, Washington may be left with only military force to prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb.

The Iran nuclear deal failed to meet America’s goals and achieve long-term stability in the Middle East. When it unravels, neither diplomacy nor economic coercion will be available to fix its shortcomings.


Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Annie Fixler is a policy analyst.

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