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On the Iran Nuclear Agreement and its Consequences

Author: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
August 4, 2015

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In his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, CFR President Richard N. Haass analyses the nuclear deal with Iran and suggests that any vote by Congress to approve the pact should be linked to legislation or a White House statement that makes clear what the United States would do if there were Iranian non-compliance, what would be intolerable in the way of Iran's long-term nuclear growth, and what the U.S. was prepared to do to counter Iranian threats to U.S. interests and friends in the region.

CFR President Richard N. Haass testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Takeaways:

  • The agreement places significant limits on what Iran is permitted to do in the nuclear realm for the next ten to fifteen years. But these limits, even if respected in full, come at a steep price. The agreement almost certainly facilitates Iran's efforts to promote its national security objectives throughout the region (many of which are inconsistent with our own) over that same period.
  • The agreement does not resolve the problems posed by Iran's actual and potential nuclear capabilities. Many of these problems will become greater as we approach the ten-year point when restrictions on the quantity and quality of centrifuges come to an end and its fifteen-year point, when restrictions pertaining to the quality and quantity of enriched uranium also end.
  • There is understandable concern as to whether Iran will comply with the letter and spirit of the agreement. Compliance cannot be assumed given Iran’s history of misleading the [International Atomic Energy Agency] (IAEA), the lack of sufficient data provided as to Iran's nuclear past, the time permitted Iran to delay access to inspectors after site-specific concerns are raised, and the difficulty likely to be experienced in reintroducing sanctions. My own prediction is that Iran may be tempted to cut corners and engage in retail but not wholesale non-compliance lest it risk the reintroduction of sanctions and/or military attack. I should add that I come to this prediction in part because I believe that Iran benefits significantly from the accord and will likely see it in its own interest to mostly comply.
  • Iran is an imperial power that seeks a major and possibly dominant role in the region. Sanctions relief will give it much greater means to pursue its goals, including helping minority and majority Shiite populations in neighboring countries, arming and funding proxies such as Hezbollah and Hamas, propping up the government in Damascus, and adding to sectarianism in Iraq by its unconditional support of the government and Shia militias. The agreement could well extend the Syrian civil war, as Iran will have new resources with which to back the Assad government.
  • The United States needs to develop a policy for the region that can deal with a more capable, aggressive Iran. To be more precise, though, it is unrealistic to envision a single or comprehensive U.S. policy for a part of the world that is and will continue to be afflicted by multiple challenges. As I have written elsewhere, the Middle East is in the early throes of what appears to be a modern-day Thirty Years’ War in which politics and religion will fuel conflict within and across boundaries for decades, resulting in a Middle East that looks very different from the one the world has grown familiar with over the past century.
  • The issue before the Congress is not whether the agreement is good or bad, but whether from this point on the United States is better or worse off with it. It needs to be recognized that passage of a resolution of disapproval (presumably overriding a presidential veto) entails several major drawbacks.

It would allow Iran to resume nuclear activity in an unconstrained manner, increasing the odds the United States would be faced with a decision – possibly as soon as this year or next – as to whether to tolerate the emergence of a threshold or actual nuclear weapons state or use military force against it.

By acting unilaterally at this point, the United States would make itself, rather than Iran, the issue. In this vein, imposing unilateral sanctions would hurt Iran but not enough to make it alter the basics of its nuclear program.

Voting the agreement down and calling for a reopening of negotiations with the aim of producing a better agreement is not a real option as there would insufficient international support for so doing. Here, again, the United States would likely isolate itself, not Iran.

Voting down the agreement would reinforce questions and doubts around the world as to American political divisions and dysfunction. Reliability and predictability are essential attributes for a great power that must at one and the same time both reassure and deter.

  • The alternative to voting against the agreement is obviously to vote for it. The problem with a simple vote that defeats a resolution of disapproval and that expresses unconditional support of the [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] (JCPOA) is that it does not address the serious problems the agreement either exacerbated or failed to resolve. What I would encourage members to explore is whether a vote for the pact (against a resolution of disapproval) could be associated or linked with policies designed to address and compensate for the weaknesses and likely adverse consequences of the agreement. I can imagine such assurances in the form of legislation voted on by the Congress and signed by the president or a communication from the president to the Congress, possibly followed up by a joint resolution. Whatever the form, it would have to deal with either what the United States would not tolerate or what the United States would do in the face of Iranian non-compliance with the recent agreement, Iran’s long-term nuclear growth, and Iranian regional activities.

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