The Iran Deal Isn’t Dead—Yet
The question of whether Iran will stick to the deal now that the United States is gone also remains. The key, panelists said, is whether Iran will decide that it is safer to come to an agreement with the Europeans on keeping the JCPOA or if its leaders determine that building a bomb is now the only way to protect their country. After all, America has attacked other countries that have given up their nuclear weapons after promising not to—Libya and Iraq—why would Iran believe the United States will refrain from regime change now? Both panelists agreed that America has lost international credibility by withdrawing from the Iran deal.
Pillar warned that, “The risk of a military clash… is greater today than a year ago.” He believes there is a risk that America could conduct military action against Iran for allegedly restarting its program. Finally, Pillar also noted that war could break out due to miscommunication since the diplomatic channels cultivated under the Obama administration no longer exist.
The JCPOA did decrease the amount of time it would take Iran to build its first rudimentary nuclear bomb if it wanted to. Before the deal, Pillar said, Iran was only a few months away from building a bomb; now it would take them a year. He added, “Iran withdrawing doesn’t mean immediately spinning up thousands of centrifuges.” In Khalilzad’s view, “I think the option of [Iran] cheating a little bit or getting out of the agreement a little bit, may be the most unlikely because if they don’t abandon the agreement all together or violate or renounce some parts of it, that would increase the pressure on the Europeans to respond and to perhaps impose sanctions.”
The panel also maintained that a bombing strike on Iran would be antithetical America’s national interest—even though the administration might decide on one. Jacob Heilbrunn, editor of the National Interest, asked, “Why not bomb Iran and declare victory whether it is or not?”
Both Zakheim and Pillar responded to these apprehensions by arguing that regime change doesn’t work, that it would consume too many lives and resources to really accomplish anything, and that there’s no way to know whether or not a successor regime might be just as hostile as the current one—if not even worse. A more optimistic verdict closed the event. “[Trump] starts very big, he may be very tough, he makes statements which may sound outrageous, and then he comes back with a pragmatic solution. And you judge him not by the beginning story, but by the conclusion,” said Dimitri Simes, President and CEO of the Center for the National Interest.
John Dale Grover is an assistant managing editor at the National Interest.