What happens if the deal fails?

For decades, the world has been trying to halt the Iranian nuclear weapons drive. For years the international community, led by the US, has been negotiating with an Iranian regime that sponsors terrorism around the globe and dreams of dominance in the Middle East. Each and every time these negotiations have failed. Until now. Now we have a deal.

If the Iranian nuclear deal works, and genuinely stops Iran in its pursuit of nuclear weapons, it would be one of the great feats in world diplomacy. President Obama would have undeniably made the world a safer place. Indeed the entire international community would owe him an enormous debt of gratitude. His vision and dogged, laser-like, pursuit of this goal, despite all the opposition, would be worthy of any and every award they give.

Yet the nagging question that sits uncomfortably within all of us is, what if Iran is lying? What if it has every intention of reneging on its commitment and carrying on in its quest for nuclear weapons? It doesn’t even have to as nefarious as deceiving us right now; what if it simply decides in 5 years’ time to restart its nuclear weapons program? What then?

According to the provisions of the Iranian nuclear deal, if Iran is found to be in breach of the agreement, sanctions are to be put back in place either at the same level as prior to the agreement (the ‘snapback’ clause) or at a level that satisfies the UN Security Council. In effect, returning to square one with Iran pursuing nuclear weapons and the world trying to stop it through the use of sanctions.

Clearly however, sanctions won’t stop the Iranian pursuit of a nuclear bomb; they didn’t stop Iran before, so why would they work in the future? This is the very reason why the global powers signed the deal in the first place? Sanctions simply weren’t working. Israeli Prime Minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, disagrees; he feels that imposing more sanctions on Iran would place greater pressure on the regime thus extracting greater concessions. Maybe. Maybe not. The truth is, if Iran reneges on this deal, it’s prepared to suffer the economic consequences. All of them.

Yet the Obama administration has said on many occasions that it will not allow Iran to achieve nuclear weapons capabilities. Period. So if sanctions didn’t work and the deal doesn’t work, what’s left?

A military strike?

President Obama has previously stated that “his administration would use force — a ‘military component,’ as he put it — only as a last resort to prevent Tehran from acquiring a bomb.” (New York Times, March 2012). Admittedly he is far cooler on the military option these days. Any mention of a military strike is attacked as war-mongering by those who favor the deal. But, if the deal fails, are we finally at that point?

The President has made promises he hasn’t kept before. Some are symbolic –- he broke his promise to recognize the Armenian genocide –- but many are not, and have much more serious repercussions. In August 2012, he infamously promised that the US would consider the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Syria “as a red line.” He reiterated this in 2013. Well, according to UN estimates, Assad has used chemical weapons at least 10 times since 2012 including as recently as this year, and the US has yet to do anything. Obama’s red line, it appears, is meaningless. (To be fair, the US has asked Assad to refrain from using chemical weapons — maybe this should count for something). When it comes to the use of force in the Middle East — or anywhere else for that matter — President Obama has a credibility problem.

This should alarm anyone hoping that Iran doesn’t achieve nuclear weapons capabilities and hoping that the US has the necessary resolve to do what needs to be done to ensure this.

Instead of fighting the Iranian nuclear deal — which is basically a done deal — those against the deal should focus their energies on getting assurances from the President about his intentions should Iran breach the agreement and renege on its obligations under the deal. It’s time to ask the Administration the ‘What if?’ question. In defending the deal, Obama has said that the alternative is war. But let’s turn this around: what if the deal doesn’t work? Will Obama be prepared to wage that war?

A related issue is the absence of degrees of punishment. The only allowable penalty in the deal is the aforementioned ‘snapback’ sanctions, which ends the deal. So how does the international community address minor infractions? According to the deal, Iran is only allowed to have about 6,100 centrifuges, down from about 19,000 now. What if they had 7,000 centrifuges? Would that constitute an infraction big enough to invoke the only chastisement available — snapback sanctions? Does enriching uranium at say, 3.7%, rather than the mandated 3.6%, be enough of a reason for us to end the deal, if ending the deal means military action? I doubt it.

Consequently the international community would, no doubt, be inclined to overlook minor infractions. But the deal lends itself to exactly that — infraction after minor infraction. It’s an inherent flaw that will be exploited by the Iranian regime time and time again. This is something we need to be vigilant over. Infractions, no matter how small, simply cannot be tolerated, even at the cost of ending the deal. This however, will ultimately be dealt with by the next American administration — an administration that didn’t negotiate the deal, nor, crucially, one that promised to stop Iran from getting the bomb.

It’s time to deal with the ramifications of the deal. It’s time to build broad consensus over the real red lines that constitute non-compliance, and it’s time to build support for what needs to be done if Iran reneges on its obligations.

About the Author
Ari Rudolph is a political risk analyst currently working in philanthropy. Before graduating from Hebrew University with a Masters in Diplomacy and National Security, Ari served as a lone-soldier in the IDF. Over the years, Ari has lived and worked in Johannesburg, Washington, D.C., New York and Israel, where he worked at the Israeli Foreign Ministry.
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