The Lessons of the Past Point to Rejoining the Iran Deal


When George W. Bush assumed the presidency in January 2001, the United States was at the apex of its global power. The Soviet Union was no more, Russia was just emerging from economic chaos, and China was years away from posing a major challenge. In this unipolar moment, one of the highest-priority security threats was the acquisition of nuclear weapons by weak U.S. adversaries — so-called rogue states like Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and Libya.

Yet even here, the situation was not so bad. Iraq’s nuclear program was on hold as a result of the sanctions and inspections regime imposed after the Gulf War, Iran was actively seeking nuclear weapons but had not yet produced significant amounts of fissile material, North Korea’s nuclear program was largely in check due to a deal struck by the Clinton administration, and Libya had nuclear aspirations but little technical progress to show for it.



Fast-forward a decade and the situation was worse on almost every front. The Bush administration’s allergy to pragmatic diplomacy, excessive focus on past sins, and regime-change temptations produced a series of policy errors that left Iraq in shambles, spurred North Korea to test and stockpile nuclear weapons, and allowed Iran to go from 0 to almost 10,000 centrifuges. Though the Bush administration did succeed in disarming Moammar Ghadafi’s Libya, the Obama administration’s later decision to back Gadhafi’s overthrow plunged Libya into chaos and further undermined the credibility of U.S. nonproliferation assurances.

These failures hold important lessons for U.S. nonproliferation policy today, as the incoming Biden administration aims to revive the Iran nuclear deal. That deal succeeded where previous efforts had failed precisely because it avoided the mistakes of the past. Those arguing for a “better deal” or no deal at all are following the same faulty logic that led to failures of the early 2000s. The Biden administration is therefore right to attempt to rejoin the deal, in spite of the controversy this will generate at home and abroad.

The Value of Pragmatic Bargains

The Bush administration inherited a fragile but effective nuclear bargain with North Korea. The Agreed Framework of 1994 froze North Korea’s plutonium program in exchange for sanctions relief, the provision of oil and light water reactors, and movement toward normalization. The deal was not perfect: It didn’t cover North Korea’s development and export of missiles or its other objectionable behavior. And neither side had fully lived up to its end of the bargain: The United States was repeatedly late in providing the promised benefits under the deal, and North Korea was found to be secretly taking the first steps toward an enrichment program. But the deal had succeeded in achieving its main purpose: keeping North Korea from crossing the nuclear threshold while averting a potentially catastrophic war.

Instead of pursuing negotiations to improve implementation and build on the deal, the Bush administration seized on the enrichment intelligence to justify leaving it entirely — even though it had successfully blocked North Korea’s quickest and clearest path to a nuclear bomb. Within a few months, North Korea had left the Nonproliferation Treaty. Three years later, North Korea tested its first nuclear device — the beginning of what has now become an increasingly large and sophisticated arsenal with the capacity to target the U.S. homeland.

The Past Is the Past

Two months after North Korea withdrew from the Nonproliferation Treaty, the United States invaded Iraq — widely regarded one of the biggest foreign policy mistakes in American history. Though many factors contributed to this decision, the belief that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons was at least one of them. Why did the Bush administration believe this, in spite of International Atomic Energy Agency inspections that had found no such program (prior to the inspectors’ expulsion in December 1998)? In part because it knew Iraq had secretly pursued nuclear weapons in the past and assumed Iraq must be hiding its activities again. As the infamous 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq put it: “We judge that we are seeing only a portion of Iraq’s WMD efforts, owing to Baghdad’s vigorous denial and deception efforts. Revelations after the Gulf war starkly demonstrate the extensive efforts undertaken by Iraq to deny information.”

With this mindset, absence of compelling evidence was simply proof that Iraq was successfully concealing its efforts, and ambiguous evidence was interpreted as the tip of a nuclear iceberg hiding under the surface. Thus aluminum tubes for artillery shells became the proof of a nonexistent uranium enrichment program and efforts by Iraq to cover up its past weapons of mass destruction programs became evidence of active programs in the present. Even after Iraq allowed inspectors back and they found no evidence of active weapons of mass destruction programs, this was not sufficient to change the Bush administration’s calculus. Surely Iraq was hiding something.

The Perils of Regime Change

Even if Iraq had been concealing active weapons of mass destruction programs, the aftermath of the U.S. invasion casts serious doubt on whether the war would have been worth it. Thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died as an insurgency quickly emerged, which metastasized into a bloody civil war — the cauldron from which al-Qaeda in Iraq and ultimately the Islamic State emerged.

The invasion of Iraq also made it more difficult for the United States to address the actual proliferation threats it faced. North Korea interpreted the invasion as evidence that the United States might invade even if it disarmed and that nuclear weapons were crucial to its security. And while Iran suspended its formal nuclear weapons program in 2003, it did not give up on establishing the capacity to produce fissile material, steadily expanding its enrichment program in spite of U.S. and international threats.

The Bush administration did succeed in striking an ambitious disarmament deal with Libya shortly following the Iraq invasion, where Gadhafi agreed to give up his weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs in exchange for sanctions relief, normalization, and informal security assurances. While a significant achievement, on the nuclear front Gadhafi had made little progress, meaning he had less to give up than leaders in North Korea or Iran. Moreover, the regime-change temptation reemerged in the Obama administration when a civil war erupted in Libya in 2011. The United States led a NATO air campaign in support of Libyan rebels, Gadhafi fell, and Libya became a failed state, haven for extremist groups, and significant source of refugees.

The fall of Gadhafi also provided North Korea with another example to point to in justifying its refusal to disarm. Indeed, during negotiations with North Korea in 2019, Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, explicitly tried to replicate the “Libya model” of total disarmament upfront, leading negotiations to break down. For Kim Jong Un, the Libya model meant something quite different: that giving up your nuclear program was no guarantee of security. In fact, it could lead to your demise.

Enter the Iran Deal

The Iran deal broke more than a decade of diplomatic impasse because it avoided the policy pitfalls of the prior decade. Forsaking the goal of regime change in Iran, the Obama administration also avoided maximalist demands that had failed repeatedly in the past, namely by allowing Iran to maintain some enrichment capacity, albeit greatly restricted and tightly monitored. The administration refused to hold the deal hostage to Iran coming fully clean about its nuclear past. As Secretary of State John Kerry put it: “We’re not fixated on Iran specifically accounting for what they did at one point in time or another. We know what they did. We have no doubt. … What we’re concerned about is going forward.” In short, the Obama administration used the leverage provided by sanctions to negotiate a pragmatic deal that rolled back Iran’s nuclear program and avoided war. And it was working — until the Trump administration’s withdrawal and reimposition of sanctions in May 2018.

All of the main objections to rejoining the deal echo the logics that led to failures in the past. Like critics of the Agreed Framework, critics of the Iran deal charge that it is too weak — because of its sunset provisions and because it doesn’t address Iranian missiles or regional behavior. Or they argue that Iran’s violations since the Trump administration withdrew prove the deal is useless. But much like the Agreed Framework, the Iran deal was quite effective at achieving its purpose: verifiably rolling back Iran’s nuclear program such that the United States could be confident it would detect and have time to respond to any Iranian cheating before it could cross the nuclear threshold. The aftermath of Trump’s withdrawal only reinforces this: Iran has rejected the maximalist demands of the Trump administration, significantly cut its breakout time, expanded its stockpile of enriched uranium, begun operating advanced centrifuges, and most recently declared it would enrich up to 20 percent and produce uranium metal. Continuing on the Trump administration’s path runs the risk of a North Korea repeat, which the Biden administration is appropriately seeking to avoid.

A second objection to rejoining the Iran deal relates to the revelations that have emerged from the “nuclear archive,” which was stolen by Israel in early 2018 and details Iran’s nuclear weapons program prior to 2003. The International Atomic Energy Agency has been investigating sites revealed by the archive but so far no evidence of an active nuclear weapons program has emerged. This hasn’t stopped critics from arguing that Biden should lift sanctions only if Iran comes fully clean about its past — something it has never been willing to do and that is not necessary for preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. As the Iraq experience shows, an excessive focus on the past can blind us to the reality of the present and lead to catastrophic decisions. The Biden administration should encourage Iran to cooperate with International Atomic Energy Agency investigations but should not hold all diplomacy hostage to a full accounting of Iran’s past.

A final objection to rejoining the Iran deal is that it relieves the economic pressure that might otherwise lead to rebellion and regime change in Iran. But it is reckless to assume this would serve U.S. interests. Continued U.S. pressure with open support for regime change would increase Iran’s incentives to acquire nuclear weapons. Even if sanctions could cause regime collapse in Iran, which is not at all clear, as Iraq and Libya demonstrate this could lead to a humanitarian catastrophe and generate violence and civil war with regional and even global implications. Finally, a new Iranian regime would not guarantee a pro-Western government or a new nuclear policy. It is often forgotten that Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions began under the Shah, a staunch ally of the United States.

The Biden administration’s efforts to resuscitate the Iran deal are sure to arouse controversy both at home and abroad. But it is a prudent strategy informed by history and the limits of U.S. power. Continuing on the current course risks repeating the costly failures of the past.



Nicholas L. Miller is an assistant professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College. He is the author of Stopping the Bomb: The Sources and Effectiveness of U.S. Nonproliferation Policy.

Image: Dragan TATIC