Is America Creating a Diplomatic Crisis Over the Iran Deal?
Independent of nuclear acquisition, Iran may bolster its asymmetric tools to fuel low-intensity conflict in the region. For example, Iran could enhance its proxy capabilities in Lebanon. It could also weaken U.S. efforts in the region by upgrading its support for militants fighting the United States and deny the U.S. battlespace supremacy. A frightened state is more likely to provoke, harass and gamble—as North Korea demonstrates.
Of course, Iran may pursue nuclear acquisition covertly. This may be easier if Iran limits access to international inspectors. This could avoid snapback sanctions from the other P5+1 nations and strained relations with European and global capitals. It could also isolate the United States in the diplomatic arena because Iran would nominally remain in good faith. The problem of verification and enforcement exists under the JCPOA regime. To withdraw from the latter aggravates the former.
Nuclear realities present Iran’s adversaries a limited window of opportunity. They understand that Iran would be likely to weaponize in a post-deal world. This could produce powerful incentives for a preventive strike against Iran. A strike may be tactically successful, as Israel’s 1981 attack of Iraq’s Osirak reactor demonstrated. But it would present two principal strategic problems.
First, Iranian retaliation runs the risk of horizontal and vertical escalation. Iran may target U.S. allies in the region and draw the United States into direct military confrontation. The consequence may include intensified military exchange that approaches conventional war fighting. Second, a strike may delay Iran’s pursuit of the bomb, but it likely cements Iran’s determination to acquire it. In the other words, the Iranian end state may remain nuclear.
If there is such thing as a perfect deal, the JPCOA is not it. As many did during arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union, opponents of the Iran deal raised legitimate concerns involving verification, access and sunset clauses that expire in less than ten years time. But the enemy of the good is the perfect. To be sure, even some of the deal’s skeptics should recognize the danger of abrogating it. Indeed, tensions on the Korean Peninsula magnify this danger, because the United States could face (nuclear) crises in two regions of vital interest.
The policy implication is clear. President Trump and Ambassador Haley: if you worry about the bomb, learn to love the deal.
Lawrence J. Korb is senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and was the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower, Reserve Affairs, Installations and Logistics from 1981–1985.