The Real Danger: What If the Iran Deal Actually Works?

"In trying to solve the Iran nuclear problem the Obama administration might well be creating another" problem.

Last month, the P5+1 and Iran announced the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that represents the long-anticipated result of nearly two years of negotiation with Iran over its nuclear program. President Obama called the JCPOA a historic deal “that will prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” One week later, the 15 members of the United Nations Security Council unanimously approved the 104-page resolution (UNSCR 2231) that is intended to fully implement the JCPOA.  

The resolution defines “Adoption Day” as 90 days after the UN Security Council’s endorsement of the JCPOA in order to provide Congress with sufficient time to review and vote on this highly detailed and complex document prior to its implementation.

Congressional deliberations are important as core U.S. national security interests are at stake that warrant intense scrutiny and sober assessment. In addition to raising and answering important questions regarding key nuclear-related issues such as the efficacy of the inspections regime and any “technical documents” negotiated separately between the IAEA and Iran, Congress would be wise to closely examine the strategic implications of lifting the embargoes on Iran’s conventional weapons and ballistic missiles that will allow Iran to modernize its military (as well as its proxies) and threaten the regional balance of power in the Middle East.

In a recent engagement with the Council on Foreign Relations, Secretary of State John Kerry was asked why lifting the bans on conventional weapons and ballistic missiles sales was included in the JCPOA. He answered that USNCR 1929, which is the 2010 resolution that imposed severe sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program, states specifically that if Iran ever comes to table to negotiate, the sanctions (including the embargoes) would be lifted. While Kerry makes a valid point to counter critics’ argument that the bans on conventional weapons and ballistic missiles are “non-nuclear” issues that have no place in the JCPOA, he also believes that the U.S. “won” the dispute by keeping the embargoes on conventional weapons and ballistic missiles in place for five and eight years, respectively, instead of lifting them immediately as demanded by Iran, China and Russia.    

Not everyone agrees with Kerry’s assessment about “winning,” nor does his explanation address the fact that the request to lift these embargoes was presented at the last minute in a not-so-subtle attempt to pressure the United States to yield on this strategically important issue. In a recent NBC interview, he said that “Even though the arms and the missiles were thrown in as an add-on to this nuclear agreement, it was always contemplated that if Iran did come and deal on the nuclear program, that was going to be lifted.” If this is accurate, then one wonders why the U.S. negotiating team did not raise the issue earlier in the P5+1 negotiation process that would provide time for a more thorough examination of the request without facing an imminent deadline.

Kerry also argues that the UN has multiple resolutions in place “that prohibit Iran from transferring weapons to Hezbollah, to the Shia militia in Iraq, to the Houthi, to Libya, to North Korea – all of which we can enforce.” Despite these agreements, there are currently some estimated 70,000 to 80,000 missiles and rockets aimed at Israel that have been in place prior to the start of the nuclear negotiations with Iran. Kerry believes that the current situation exists because “nobody has pressed the issue” of the transfer of these weapons. This statement suggests a lack of political will and raises an important question that Congress should consider in its deliberations: Where is the evidence that the international community will enforce UNSCR 2231 any more effectively than its predecessors – especially given the economic and other incentives to keep the deal in place?

Just days before the nuclear deal was finalized in Vienna, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey testified before a Senate committee that “we should under no circumstances relieve pressure on Iran relative to ballistic missile capabilities and arms trafficking.” Nevertheless, USCR 2231 states that “Iran is called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology” for eight years after Adoption day, if not earlier.

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