The New Iran Deal is a Splendid Achievement

by Benjamin Studebaker

Iran has a nuclear agreement with the P5+1 group (USA, UK, France, China, Russia, Germany). This is a fantastic deal that protects and advances the interests of all signatories. Here’s why.

Under the terms of the deal, the Iranian people will get relief from the international sanctions that have strangled Iran’s economy. In return, the Iranians have agreed to key stipulations:

  • Iran must reduce its uranium stockpile by 98%.
  • Enrichment levels must be reduced from 20% to 3.67%.
  • Iran will turn over 2/3rds of its centrifuges to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
  • Iran will ship all spent fuel outside the country.

If Iran abides by these stipulations, its break-out time (the amount of time necessary for building a nuclear weapon) will be increased from 2 or 3 months to a year or more.

Critics of the deal scoff–they think Iran will violate the deal, get nuclear weapons, and use the end of sanctions to regenerate legitimacy for the regime. They were hoping that continued sanctions would eventually destroy support for the regime and perhaps lead to a popular revolution and a pro-western government. These hopes are not realistic. It is true that President Hassan Rouhani’s poll numbers have declined, but the most recent numbers we have (admittedly from February) show his net rating is still +19:

Even before this agreement, the Iranian economy was already recovering:

American critics say that this is because sanctions were not strong enough. They want even stronger sanctions. But this ignores several realities:

  1. The other members of the P5+1 group would never agree to the sanctions the American conservatives want.
  2. Even if these sanctions were enacted and they destroyed Iran’s economy, what then?

This second point merits elaboration–there is no guarantee that destroying Iran’s economy would produce a friendlier regime. Indeed, it’s far more likely that the collapse would be blamed on the west and that any new government would be even more hostile and determined to acquire nuclear weapons. Even this presumes that an intact government survives–there’s always the chance that Iran could become a failed state, which would create massive instability in the Middle East. Think about it. Iran is the most powerful Shiite state in the region. Hawks like to point out that Iran maintains something of a quasi-empire, providing support to Shiite governments in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. They view this alliance as a threat to Israel and a serious security concern, but right now Iran’s sphere of influence is being deeply undermined by the Syrian Civil War and the rise of ISIS. Iran must focus its efforts on defeating ISIS and other Syrian and Iraqi rebel groups. In this respect its interests largely align with the west’s. If Iran were to collapse, the resource network that helps sustain these Shiite regimes would also collapse, and it would become harder to restore order to the region without an extensive bloodbath and/or a considerable western military commitment. It is much more expedient to keep Iran around and force it to bear more of the cost of maintaining its allied regimes and the modicum of stability they bring to the region. We do not want the same instability we see in Syria and Iraq to spread to Iran.

It’s also not a foregone conclusion that Iran will violate the deal. For one, there are enforcement mechanisms. The IAEA will run inspections and alert the P5+1 group to any lapses in compliance. Critics worry that Iran will somehow trick the IAEA. This is possible, but if the IAEA has any reason at all to believe that Iran is obstructing its work, it will alert the P5+1 group. This could trigger renewed sanctions or military action, and Iran doesn’t want those things. It is precisely because it does not want those things that Iran has made this deal in the first place.

But let’s look at the worst case scenario: what if Iran violates the deal so skillfully that by the time we find out, Iran has or almost has a nuclear capability? The closest historical analogue is North Korea. Numerous times, North Korea agreed to treaties that would limit its capabilities in exchange for aid, only to later renege on those agreements:

North Korea first tested nuclear weapons in 2006. It tested them again in 2009 and 2013. Today, North Korea has an estimated one or two dozen warheads. Its missiles allow it to potentially strike targets throughout East Asia, though it does not yet have the technology to hit targets in the continental US:

Similarly, Iran’s missiles would allow it to potentially strike targets in the Middle East, but most of Europe remains off limits and the US is nowhere close to within range:

So the United States is not at risk of a nuclear attack by Iran anytime soon–North Korea is much closer to bringing the continental US into range. Israel is within range of Iran and it’s deeply concerned, but South Korea has long been within range of North Korea. For all its bluster, North Korea has never deployed its weapons against South Korea. Why not? If North Korea used nuclear weapons against South Korea, South Korea’s allies would annihilate the Kim regime. The United States has a huge nuclear arsenal and massively powerful conventional forces that would make short work of North Korea. Similarly, if Iran deployed nuclear weapons against Israel, it could expect a robust US response.

Israel is even better situated to deal with a hostile nuclear neighbor than South Korea is, because Israel has its very own nuclear arsenal. Israel has at least 80 warheads. Israel’s recently developed Jericho III missile is rumored to have significantly better range than anything the Iranians have:

Since Israel is not only a US ally but also has its very own nuclear arsenal capable of striking Iran, an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel would be regime suicide. Similarly, if Iran eventually developed long range missiles and attacked the United States, America’s much larger and more advanced arsenal would turn Iran into glass. If Iran committed regime suicide with nuclear weapons, it would be the first regime to do that in history. Some especially paranoid critics really do believe Iran would do this, but it’s thoroughly implausible. The Iranian leaders enjoy comfortable lifestyles and they can’t spread their ideology throughout the region if they’re dead.

Others think that Iran would give the bomb to some terrorist group and have that group use it against Israel. They’re not thinking this through. If Iran does this and the terrorists detonate a nuclear bomb in Tel Aviv or New York, do they really believe that the US and Israeli governments would be unable to figure out where the bomb came from? Do they imagine that Iran is willing to take the chance that the US or Israel would discover (or just assume) that the bomb came from Iran and annihilate the regime? Governments that give nuclear weapons to terrorists lose control of those weapons and cannot predict what the terrorists will do with them or whether they themselves will be held accountable for the actions of those terrorists. For these reasons, governments never give their nuclear weapons to anybody, let alone unpredictable radical groups. If the concern is that the radicals will somehow steal the weapons right out from under the noses of the Iranians, it’s much more likely that nukes will be stolen from Russia–its stockpile is far larger and consequently far harder to secure.

These scenarios are getting progressively more ludicrous. Iran has strong reasons to abide by the terms of the agreement, and if it does break the agreement it has overwhelmingly decisive reasons not to use nuclear weapons for offensive purposes against Israel, Europe, or the US. In the meantime, by cutting this deal we relieve the suffering the sanctions cause to the people of Iran and we gain increased economic access to the Iranian market. We also open the door to cooperation with Iran against ISIS and other radical groups that are destabilizing the Middle East.

Everyone’s a winner except ISIS. That sounds like a splendid deal to me.