The Buzz

The Nuclear Deal with Iran Isn't Enough

One of the contentious debates surrounding the recent nuclear deal with Iran concerns whether or not U.S. negotiators should have demanded broader shifts in Iranian foreign policy before signing any agreement. Critics of the deal argue that by providing sanctions relief before Iran curtailed its support for Hamas, Hezbollah, Houthi rebels, and Bashar al-Assad, the United States effectively agreed to bankroll Iran’s regional influence.

In response, the Obama administration has argued that by focusing on Iran’s nuclear program, U.S. negotiators were better able to avoid war while containing the most threatening of Iran’s ambitions—namely, its quest for nuclear weapons. This controversy raises a broader question: can U.S. agreements with nuclear-aspiring adversaries persist over the long term without a broader resolution of bilateral tensions?

I am currently revising a book manuscript that directly addresses this question by identifying the conditions under which nuclear aspirants comply with or defy U.S. demands for nuclear restraint. In my research, I have found that states peacefully give up their ambitions when they expect to suffer steep military or economic costs for pursuing nuclear weapons and when their security environment no longer compels them to acquire a deterrent.

These impulses can point in opposite directions, which is why negotiating with adversaries like Iran is so difficult. On the one hand, if U.S. negotiators had refused to provide sanctions relief without broader changes in Iran’s foreign policy, they would have diluted U.S. leverage over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. By threatening to maintain punishing sanctions even if Iran complied with U.S. nonproliferation demands, this negotiating strategy would have reduced Iran’s incentive to exercise nuclear restraint. But by confining the negotiations exclusively to Iran’s nuclear choices and trading sanctions relief for nuclear concessions, U.S. diplomats increased their ability to negotiate stricter controls on Iran’s facilities, and achieved a better nuclear deal than they would have otherwise.

On the other hand, by avoiding negotiations over the broader set of conflicts between the United States and Iran, U.S. diplomats constructed the nuclear deal on a shaky foundation. That is because Iranian support for actors that threaten U.S. interests and allies in the region will continue to produce tensions, and could even lead Iran into military confrontation with the United States. Anticipating this outcome, Iran has powerful incentives to violate the nuclear deal and acquire nuclear weapons as a means of deterring Washington’s use of force.

While Iran and the United States share an interest in containing ISIS and other Sunni Jihadist groups, the two countries nevertheless have a number of deep differences. For example, the United Arab Emirates’ recent decision to deploy ground forces in Yemen could escalate into a broader war between Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council, which recently strengthened military ties with the United States, and one of whose members, Bahrain, hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet. Likewise, dogged Iranian support for Bashar al-Assad could provoke a fight with Turkey, which is committed to Assad’s ouster, and which recently increased its cooperation with the U.S. military to fight ISIS forces in Syria. All of these potential flashpoints create long-term incentives for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons as a precautionary deterrent.                                                                                                  

Certainly, cheating on its nonproliferation obligations would entail costs, including renewed sanctions and the prospect of U.S. strikes on its nuclear facilities. But if Iran comes to expect that confrontation with the U.S. is inevitable, then it might calculate that the benefits of a nuclear deterrent for its security outweigh the military and economic costs of violating the nuclear deal. Thus, by focusing narrowly on the nuclear issue, U.S. negotiators achieved a stricter nuclear deal, but without ensuring its long-term durability.