Questions About the Iran Deal from an Architecture Student

The deal reached last month between Iran and the world powers is nothing if not an epic diplomatic triumph—but is it also a strategic triumph?

Years of tortured negotiations have resulted in what looks close enough to a guarantee that Iran won’t develop a nuclear bomb in the next quarter century. In return, Iran will be allowed to resume its place in the global economy, providing relief to the Iranian people who have languished under an economy crippled by international sanctions. This deal has definite benefits for the United States, our allies and negotiating partners, and Iran. But when we look back at this deal in thirty years’ time, will we still feel so positive about it?

Were it not for the deal, Iran could feasibly build a nuclear weapon within the next few years. That would be bad, but what would it make them? A nation with a nuclear bomb, no money, and a relatively unsophisticated military. Defense Secretary Carter has made clear that no target in Iran is out of reach to us today, and in the words of President Obama, it would take the United States a matter of days to neutralize Iran’s present military. That means that if we needed to interdict a nuclear weapon, we could, and that if the Iranians react violently, we could cope with that reaction as well.

Alternatively, if this deal holds, Iran will enjoy between two and three decades as a normal member of the international community before the option of the bomb once again becomes available to them. Should they decide to produce a nuclear weapon at that point, they will have had ample time to stockpile cash and upgrade their military capabilities in order to weather whatever international response may come. It stands to reason that interdicting a weapon in that situation would be a much more costly and dangerous affair.

One of the biggest questions here is whether, on the other side of this agreement’s lifespan, Iran will still feel that building a nuclear bomb serves its strategic interests. The answer to that question hinges largely on whether the deal presages a broader liberalization of Iran’s society and government, a development that could lead to warmer international ties and greater diplomatic influence, thus diminishing the need for a nuclear weapon as a source of leverage.

Will it? The closure of this agreement could be interpreted as nothing more than Iranian president Hassan Rouhani fulfilling his campaign promise to secure sanctions relief. On the other hand, one member of the US Senate’s Intelligence Committee, whom I asked about this issue, believes that President Rouhani’s election was in fact a mandate not just for economic rejuvenation, but also for the type of international engagement that would turn any strategic benefits of a nuclear weapons program into strategic liabilities.

Regardless of which of these turns out to be the correct prophecy, there remains a problem: this deal is being debated as something that will either succeed or fail at preventing Iran from building a nuclear bomb, an unfair standard by which to measure a deal that has a set expiration date. To make matters worse, both sides of the debate seem to be ignoring basic facts; at the accord’s first public hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee two weeks ago, skeptical Senators lambasted the deal as placing undeserved trust in Iran’s government, when in fact the deal is predicated on hard evidence of compliance. At that same hearing, Secretary of State John Kerry repeatedly described the deal as preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, while failing to acknowledge that after its main provisions expire, we may find ourselves in largely the same position we’re in today—but with a wealthier and better-armed Iran.

What we need is a fundamental change in Iran’s strategic calculus. We need Iran to realize organically that building a nuclear weapon would weaken—not bolster—its position, but can such a profound result even be reached through an arms control deal? Perhaps only a period of prolonged diplomatic and economic engagement could achieve that goal. If that’s the case, then this deal seems like a fine place to start.

As a closing note, now that the accord has been adopted by the United Nations, it is too late to turn back. With the international sanctions program nearing its negotiated end, there is no recourse should this deal fail in Congress. If Congress blocks this agreement, we will face the real and immediate prospect of Iran’s nuclear program running wild, without comprehensive sanctions to stem the inflow of cash and weapons.

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