How to Get the Most Out of the Iran Nuke Deal

Let’s be clear about what the Iranian deal does not achieve: it does not prevent Iran from getting the bomb; it does not in any reliable way extend breakout capability to a year; and there is zero probability sanctions will “snap back” if Iran violates the agreement.

This deal does send an effective sanctions regime up in smoke. It will provide a windfall of as much as $150 billion in frozen Iranian assets, allow this Iranian government to sell oil and conduct dollar transactions again. The early beneficiaries of lifting sanctions will unquestionably be the Iranian political elites and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Forces, because they have preferential economic opportunities. This Iranian government will almost certainly spend a lot more money engaging in terrorism around the world and destabilizing governments in the Middle East. As a result, the deal will deepen allies’ distrust of the United States.

But American policy on Iran has for some time been dangerously lacking in credibility. Nobody believed President Obama was going to destroy the Iranian nuclear weapons programs — he disparaged the potential effectiveness of American military options more fulsomely than did the Iranian government. And while Obama has foolishly corroded the deterrent value of military force, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, in his memoir Duty, recounts that in 2008 Vice President Dick Cheney implored President George W. Bush to take out the Iranian nuclear infrastructure, and got no support from either the national security team or the president. After the Iraq war, preemption has gone out of fashion.

Averring military force, the United States has freighted sanctions with the entirety of our policy. Europeans have been stalwart — they have borne the main economic and political costs of sanctions in increased oil prices and increased reliance on Russian oil and gas with Iran out of the market. With strong sanctions in place against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine and yet another Greek bailout in front of them, Europe will not likely re-impose sanctions absent unequivocal Iranian breaches of the agreement. Groaning under the effects of sanctions itself, it is doubtful Russia would have continued the sanctions regime on Iran, or will under any circumstances re-impose sanctions.

A Republican president could “unsign” the agreement and reinstate U.S. sanctions, but that will serve only to exasperate our European allies. Congress can remove the president’s waiver authority and impose additional sanctions, but even if they override an Obama veto, neither of those actions will affect the behavior of Europe, Russia, or China. So the horse is out of the barn.

The policy question thus becomes how to make the best of this deal. Here are my suggestions for Republicans, the Congress, and the Obama administration.

Republican candidates and Congressmen should give full vent to denouncing the agreement. It will send a note of caution to the Iranian leadership and show allies we take seriously their concerns. And they should all develop crisp answers to the question of what they would do instead.

Congress should explore the agreement in detail, focusing in particular on the issues of breakout time and enforcement. Congress’ review will be essential in letting the air out of the balloon of the administration’s ludicrous claims of what the deal will achieve. Calculations of break out time are largely fictitious and should be exposed as such — we don’t now know how long it would take Iran to build nuclear weapons, and the verification measures in the agreement will not provide an analytic basis for determining it, either. But the verification can provide valuable intelligence, and Congress should press the intelligence agencies to explain what they need to learn and how they will utilize terms of the agreement to maximum effect. Congress should also add enforcement provisions and reporting requirements to the deal, should they approve it.

The Obama administration should first and foremost move against Iran’s terrorism and regional destabilization. This will be essential in staving off a proliferation cascade. Our sole focus on Iran’s nuclear threat has left them free rein in other areas of threat they pose. We should publicize their activities, reveal their connections, confront their forces, attack their networks, not only refuse to cooperate with their IRGC and military in Iraq but target them. Qasem Soleimani should not be able to sleep safely outside Iran’s borders. We should step up our pressure on Iran’s naval activities in the Straits of Hormuz, make clear we will sink any Iranian vessel that interferes with shipping. And we should increase our assistance to — and our participation in — stabilizing Iraq, removing Syrian President Bashir al-Assad and building a new Syria. Only if we restore allies’ confidence that we understand the nature of Iran’s threat will they begin to trust our security commitments and can we together put out the wildfire consuming the Middle East.

We also need urgently to restore the credibility of our military options against Iran. Plural. The President should emphasize — and actually mean — that the United States of America reserves the right to unilaterally attack any nuclear infrastructure in Iran we conclude is in violation of the agreement, whether it is an unacknowledged Iranian site, a site at which our intelligence agencies detect suspicious activity occurring at, or the IAEA is denied access to.

The administration should publicize the intelligence gathering opportunities of the agreement, both directly through the verification provisions, and through greater interaction by the West with the Iranian government, businesses, and travelers. It wouldn’t hurt to imply we’ve already learned an enormous amount observing the behavior of the Iranian government during the negotiating process. Make the Iranian government play social media defense for once.

Now that he’s got a deal, President Obama should embrace the prospect that it will foster political change in Iran. Iran’s leaders seemed to fear agreeing to this deal, despite it being incredibly beneficial in its economic and military provisions for Iran. That suggests the leadership fears the domestic political effects of greater engagement with the world. Well they should, and the United States should emphasize the failings of the Iranian government to its people. New Year’s greetings to the Iranian people are nice; revealing overseas banking assets of the leadership is even better. We should encourage wide commercial involvement, because this will expand the benefits beyond Iran’s privileged political and military elites. The best way to delegitimize this Iranian government is to show how successful Iran could be without it.

I have little confidence the administration will do any of these things; but they provide a means for Republicans to make substantial improvements in the deal without “unsigning” it.

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