Iran Deal or No Deal


In The Washington Post, Ambassador Eric Edelman and scholar Ray Takeyh have written a succinct criticism of the Iran nuclear deal. They point to serious perceived weaknesses in its constraints on Iran’s activities, and in its capacity to enable verification of Iran’s compliance with them.  They conclude, “the scale of imperfection is so great that the judicious course is to reject the deal and renegotiate a more stringent one.”

This is not in the cards.  Edelman and Takeyh made their case as though the accord were between Iran and the United States.  Nowhere do they take into account that it is a multilateral agreement, reached with not only America’s allies (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) in the P5+1 negotiating team, but also China and Russia.  Iran conceded as much as it did in the accord because sanctions and pressures on it are international in nature, and not just the result of American policy.

The unanimous vote on July 20 in the United Nations Security Council on creating a basis for lifting sanctions on Iran shows the significance of the multilateral dimension.   At this late point, if the United States were to reject the Iran deal, the international sanctions regime would weaken, if not collapse.  Allies and friends would blame America.  They would view it as a feckless and weak leader and increasingly go their own way — not just on nonproliferation.

Further, the Iranian government might become even more determined to obtain nuclear weapons if the United States rejects the agreement.  Iran’s interest in nuclear technology did not begin with the Islamic Republic.  Shortly after India’s 1974 nuclear test, the Shah told a French magazine that Iran would acquire nuclear weapons “without a doubt and sooner than one would think.” And while the Iranian public may have eagerly greeted the nuclear accord in anticipation of sanctions relief, most Iranians still believe in their country’s inalienable “right” to conduct a peaceful nuclear program.  A U.S. rejection that led the sanctions regime to erode, and obviated a monitoring regime that Iranian hardliners see as humiliating, would make it easier for Iran’s rulers to maintain a domestic consensus for continuing it.

Finally, the Iran deal is unlikely to spark nuclear proliferation across the Middle East.  The costs Iran incurred by pursuing its nuclear program would likely discourage potential future proliferators.  Tehran has spent tens of billions of dollars directly on the program, and suffered lost economic opportunities worth many times more.  Iran’s oil exports have been halved due to sanctions.  More than $100 billion of its oil cash remains “frozen” in foreign bank accounts.  Iran’s oil industry is starved of investment, to the point that the oil minister has said he does not have enough money even to pay his employees’ salaries.  The nuclear agreement may allow Iran to keep much of its nuclear infrastructure, but it will not easily be able to use the facilities to produce nuclear weapons.

In sum, Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear program has not been beneficial for the Iranian regime or the Iranian people.  Many Iranian leaders will brag of victory if the deal enters into force, but what will Iran have gained from its nuclear quest?  One of the most resource-rich countries on earth, Iran can barely exploit its own wealth.  Its economy remains far less developed than of those of Turkey and Saudi Arabia.  Why would any country want to repeat Iran’s travails?

The George W. Bush and Obama administrations sought to strike a deal with Iran, but only now has one emerged.  Iran is far advanced in its nuclear program, however, diminishing the leverage of the P5+1.  At this late stage, the choice is the deal on the table or likely none.

American leadership has been essential to the conclusion of the accord with Iran.  A rejection would send the wrong message, not only to Iran but also to America’s closest allies, and it would not serve American interests in the region.


William Courtney is an adjunct senior fellow at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation, and a former U.S. Commissioner to the Bilateral Consultative Commission which implements the Threshold Test Ban Treaty.  Alireza Nader is a senior international policy analyst at RAND.

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