Paul Pillar

What Would Be Most Likely to Unravel the Iran Nuclear Agreement

The agreement to limit Iran's nuclear program—one of the most significant achievements in recent years on behalf of nuclear nonproliferation—deserves ample attention and effort to preserve it. Preserving the accord will require much attention and effort, given that many of those who strove to prevent the agreement from ever being completed or implemented are still trying to kill it. A U.S. presidential election year is a fertile time for the agreement-killing efforts, with several presidential candidates on one side of the political spectrum trying to outdo each other in flaunting their anti-Iranism by promising if they take office to renounce the agreement outright.

The unfortunate ignorance-enhancing effects of so much of the rhetoric that was aimed against the agreement while it was being negotiated—rhetoric that involved raising every possible basis for doubt about the agreement, and seeing what would stick—extend beyond making approval of the accord a much closer call than it should have been. The effects today include mistaken notions of the most likely reasons the agreement might yet fail. Prominent among the mistaken notions is that Iranian decision-makers are determined to build nuclear weapons and that the agreement is part of a deceptive and elaborate multi-decade scheme to do so. The supposed scheme never made internal sense in the first place, and this notion certainly is inconsistent not only with the Iranian decision to negotiate the agreement and to accept all the limitations and scrutiny it involves but also with the alacrity with which Iran already has fulfilled all of the provisions it needed to fulfill before the agreement was formally implemented.

The notion also is inconsistent with the prevailing views in Iran regarding nuclear activities. The Iranian public consistently has strongly supported, as confirmed by a recent poll conducted under the auspices of the University of Maryland's Center for International and Security Studies, a continued nuclear program. The support is for a peaceful program, not nuclear weapons. Iranian policy-makers have had to operate in the political climate that includes this set of views. That climate puts the lie to not only the notion about an Iranian intention to build nuclear weapons but also the notion that there was a “better deal” to be had that involved even more drastic cutbacks of a peaceful nuclear program.

As for the different ways in which the agreement may still die, certainly one of the possibilities is that one of those U.S. presidential candidates gets elected and carries through on the threat to renounce the accord. Doing so would mean acting in a clearly senseless direction that would involve removing all of the special limitations and scrutiny being applied to the Iranian program, inviting the Iranians to reverse the measures they have just taken to limit the program, and telling the Iranians they would no longer have any obligation stopping them from producing as much fissile material as they want, including to a grade that can be used in weapons. Senseless though such a step would be, it is possible that the inflexibility of campaign rhetoric and a felt obligation to wealthy donors who would love to kill the agreement may lead a new president to take it anyway.

The beginnings of another and perhaps more likely route to bringing down the agreement, a route that does not depend on the result of the U.S. presidential election, can be seen in current activity in Congress that is likely to produce new proposed legislation that involves, using various rationales, the re-imposition or new imposition of sanctions on Iran. This is on top of steps the Congress already has taken that involve violating at least the spirit of the nuclear agreement, such as a restriction on visa waivers that picks on Iran (with no good reason, as far as keeping ISIS terrorists out of the United States is concerned) in a way that the Iranians believe, with good reason, may violate the letter of the agreement as well.

Which brings us back to Iranian perspectives, and specifically perspectives on what the U.S. government is doing in light of what was agreed to in the nuclear accord. If the agreement dies, the formal death might be marked by someone in Tehran rather than in Washington declaring a formal renunciation, but it won't be because of a desire in Iran to build nuclear weapons. It will instead be because of an Iranian conclusion that the United States is not implementing in good faith its side of the bargain, and that the agreement as actually implemented is not being as economically beneficial as most Iranians hoped and expected, and had a right to expect.

Understanding this possible scenario requires attention to several patterns of opinion in Iran, as reflected in the aforementioned poll. They are patterns that ought not to be surprising, although any understanding of them in America has been weakened and confused by the anti-agreement rhetoric. One is strong Iranian suspicion about whether the United States will abide by its obligations—suspicion that is as strong as, and (given goings-on in Congress) at least as well-founded as suspicions in the United States about whether Iran will live up to its side of the agreement. In the poll, 62 percent of Iranians said they were “not at all confident” or “not very confident” that the United States will live up to its obligations under the agreement. This suspicion exists even among many who nonetheless support the agreement itself; 71 percent of Iranian respondents say they either strongly or somewhat approve of the accord.