Debunked: Why 5 Criticisms of the Iran Deal Are Wrong

"The Iran deal should be viewed in this light: as a pragmatic agreement to reduce proliferation risks in difficult circumstances."

As the U.S. Congress debates the nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran, public opinion polls show that a majority of Americans oppose the agreement. Meanwhile, many analysts and politicians have levied strident critiques against the deal, warning of nightmarish scenarios if the agreement goes though. It is thus more important than ever to carefully consider such critiques, both in terms of their logic and the relevant historical evidence that bears on their plausibility.

This piece considers five of the most common criticisms of the agreement. Like many other observers, I conclude that most of these criticisms are weak, either logically or when viewed through the lens of history. The deal is highly unlikely to (1) increase the odds of Iran going nuclear, to (2) undermine U.S. nonproliferation credibility, to (3) set off a nuclear domino effect, or (4) to lead to full-scale U.S-Iranian accommodation. While the deal might embolden Iran to some extent, this emboldenment would likely be less than would occur if Iran acquired nuclear weapons, an outcome the deal will help prevent. The deal is without a doubt much stronger than most of its critics would have you believe.

1. The deal increases the odds of Iran ultimately acquiring nuclear weapons.

The most straightforward argument against the deal is that it will achieve the opposite of what it intends and increase the likelihood that Iran ultimately acquires the bomb. This could purportedly occur in a variety of ways: Iran could simply wait until the restrictions under the deal expire and then sprint for the bomb; Iranians could use the increased resources from the lifting of sanctions to jumpstart a covert weapons program; or they could abandon the agreement openly, banking on the fact that international opposition would be slow to remobilize. None of these arguments make much sense.

First, even after the restrictions on Iran’s enrichment program expire under the deal, the Iranians will not be “free” to build nuclear weapons. Iran is a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which explicitly bans the development of nuclear weapons. Were Iran to race for the bomb in some distant point in the future, they would be violating their pre-existing international commitments and would become the certain target of sanctions and likely target of American or Israeli military strikes.

Second, critics argue that Tehran might covertly violate the agreement, perhaps using its increased financial resources to fund a sophisticated weapons program. This is possible, and certainly more likely than Iran openly violating the agreement. However, the deal gives the international community unprecedented, increased access to the Iranian nuclear program, including monitoring its supply chains. Thus, the likelihood of detecting a covert Iranian program is higher under the deal than without a deal. This makes the threat of military action more credible.

Third, it is possible that in the aftermath of a deal, Iran might conclude that the international coalition against its nuclear program would be slow to remobilize. As a result, Iran might simply wait a few years and then openly violate the agreement, banking on a sluggish response. Yet this sort of Iranian action would be so brazen as to almost ensure a strong response. Iran would not only be violating the NPT but also its agreement with the P5+1, and the deal explicitly includes a mechanism for quickly re-imposing sanctions in such a scenario. Even if a full international coalition were slow to mobilize, there would be nothing to stop the United States or Israel from taking unilateral military action, if necessary.

2. The deal is an unprecedented departure from U.S. nonproliferation policy

Some have argued that by allowing Iran to maintain an enrichment capability, the deal with Iran contradicts decades of U.S. nonproliferation policy, is without historical precedent, and thus sends the wrong message to other countries considering their nuclear options. In a sense, critics are right that the deal is unprecedented: never before has the United States negotiated such stringent limitations on an advanced, indigenous nuclear program.

What may appear at first glance to be more dramatic U.S. nonproliferation successes are in fact less impressive than the Iran deal. While the U.S. helped negotiate the removal of Soviet nuclear weapons from Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine in the early 1990s, these countries never had full control of the weapons and had not developed them indigenously. Moreover, while South Africa gave up its small nuclear weapons arsenal around the same time, this was primarily due to domestic developments and not American diplomacy. The 1994 Agreed Framework froze North Korea’s reprocessing program but did not explicitly prevent an enrichment program; the Iran deal limits both.

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