July 22, 2015 | Foreign Policy

Why Obama’s Vision of a Weakened Iran Doesn’t Add Up

There was a lot to take issue with in President Barack Obama’s press conference defending his Iran deal last week, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). But one of the biggest whoppers came near the end when Obama argued that “there is no scenario in which a U.S. president is not in a stronger position 12, 13, 15 years from now” to stop Iran from getting the bomb. On the contrary, he insisted that Iran will actually be “in a weaker position than they are today,” while America will not have “given away any of our military capabilities.” As a result, Obama maintained that the choices available to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons are actually “tougher today than they would be for that president 15 years from now.”

It’s not clear precisely what underpins Obama’s remarkable certitude in this regard. In the press conference, he hinted at several factors. An effort by Iran to get nuclear weapons in 15 years, he noted, would “still be in violation of this deal and the commitments [Iran] made internationally.” Specifically, the president said, Iran’s obligation not to develop nuclear weapons “under the Non-Proliferation Treaty does not go away,” while “the Additional Protocol that they have to sign up for under this deal, which requires a more extensive inspection and verification mechanism … stays in place.” Moreover, the president pointed out that in 15 years, the United States will be “much more knowledgeable about what [Iran’s] capabilities are, much more knowledgeable about what their program is and still in a position to take whatever actions we would take today” to stop any effort by the mullahs to break out to a bomb.

Some of this is not particularly compelling, to say the least. As most Iran experts will tell you, the Islamic Republic does not have a history of taking its international obligations particularly seriously. So the fact that it’s agreed not to develop nuclear weapons, either as part of the JCPOA or its longstanding obligations under the NPT, is hardly reassuring. Indeed, in light of the fact that Iran has been in serial violation of its NPT obligations for most of the past two decades, the president’s argument on this point is just, well, silly. When it comes to the mullahs, it’s a rule of thumb that if you have to start resorting to arguments that “They promised,” you’re already in deep trouble.

Obama was on somewhat sounder ground with respect to the Additional Protocol (AP). There’s no question that the AP represents a more intrusive inspection regime than exists today. That said, it’s not as tough a regime as is supposed to be in place for the first 15 years of the JCPOA. Nor in 15 years will the AP be backed by the deterrent threat of so-called “snapback sanctions,” which are also set to expire.

It’s worth recalling that prior to the JCPOA’s conclusion, everyone — including the Obama administration — agreed that the AP by itself provided insufficient safeguards to prevent Iranian cheating. Most demanded something above and beyond the AP. That generally meant “anywhere, anytime” inspections. But even less hawkish arms controllers suggested that we would at least need “AP plus.” While some version of AP plus is what the JCPOA seems to confer, key elements of it disappear in 15 years. At that point, as the president acknowledged, we’ll be left with more or less just the AP — precisely the regime that no one believes would be adequate today to keep tabs on Iranian perfidy. So how in the world is it going to get the job done 15 years from now when all the key restrictions on the size and scope of Iran’s nuclear program have come off and the mullahs are free to deploy as many advanced centrifuges as they want, enrich as much uranium as they want, in as many fortified, underground bunkers as they want? So while the president may be right in the narrowest sense that we will be in a stronger position with the AP in 15 years than we are today without it, the harsh reality is almost certainly that we won’t be in a strong enough position to stop Iranian cheating.

President Obama’s claim that our intelligence about Iran’s nuclear program will be much better after 15 years of intrusive inspections seems incontrovertible. And important. Especially if you want to be in position to take action to hinder or destroy the program through sabotage or military attack. It stands to reason that the more information we have about the program and its key vulnerabilities, the more effectively we’ll be able to target it. A separate question concerns the useful half-life of that intelligence as we move further beyond the 15 year mark and Iran’s program expands dramatically to include scores of new facilities that were never subject to the earlier, more intrusive verification regime. But in the short term, at least, it seems to me that the president’s argument in this regard has some real merit.

Nevertheless — and here we get to the heart of the matter — one has to ask whether the advantages that the president cited in his press conference are really enough to sustain his unqualified claim that under no possible scenario will the United States be in a worse position in 15 years than it is today to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons? More to the point, does his assertion that in 15 years Iran will be “in a weaker position than they are today” stand up to even minimal scrutiny? The short answer, I’d submit, is an unqualified no. Let’s count the ways.

The Nuclear Program. Under the JCPOA, all restraints on the size and scope of Iran’s nuclear program will be gone in 15 years. At that point, Iran will have the blessing of the international community to build an industrial-size nuclear infrastructure vastly larger than what exists today. No limits on the number of advanced centrifuges it can spin. No limits on the size of its stockpile of enriched uranium. No limits on its ability to produce highly-enriched uranium (HEU) — i.e., weapons-grade — for “civilian purposes.” No limits on the number of plutonium-producing heavy water reactors it can build.

President Obama himself acknowledged earlier this year that as we approach year 15 of the deal, Iran’s breakout time to a bomb’s worth of HEU will approach zero. With an enrichment capacity that dwarfs what it possesses today, Iran would then be within days or weeks of having the fissile material for a significant nuclear arsenal – as compared to the two to three months that our intelligence community estimates that it would take Iran today to enrich enough for just one bomb. Now, I don’t much like either of those scenarios, but I’d find it hard to make the president’s unequivocal claim that we’ll without question be better off in 15 years when Iran’s break out or sneak out time to a bomb (or several bombs) will be significantly shorter than it is today and its overall enrichment capacity many times larger, more advanced, and probably more dispersed and hardened against external attack.

Militarily. Thanks to the JCPOA, U.N. restrictions on Iran’s ability to buy conventional weapons and develop ballistic missiles will be gone in less than a decade. And as a result of the deal’s front-loaded sanctions relief, Iran will relatively quickly have access to tens of billions of dollars in cash and additional oil revenues that can be applied to modernizing its military. In short, it will be open season for the world’s arms merchants, especially in Russia and China, to flood Iran with the most sophisticated and deadly weapons of war. That of course will include a dramatic ramping up in Iran’s defensive capabilities against any attack – especially its air defenses. I wonder if the president has asked any U.S. or Israeli pilots this question: Would you prefer to be sent on a mission to destroy Iran’s nuclear program today or 15 years from now after the mullahs have been on a decade-long shopping spree that blankets the Islamic Republic with the latest Russian anti-aircraft missiles? Even with the marginal intelligence gains that may result from the JCPOA, it’s very hard to imagine any of them endorsing the president’s rosy assessment of the likely balance of forces.

But greater difficulty penetrating Iranian air defense is only the start of the escalating military challenges that we are likely to face in 15 years. After a large-scale military buildup, Iran will also be far better positioned to inflict a high price on the United States and our regional allies in any retaliatory strike. Both its naval forces in the Gulf and its missile arsenal will be vastly expanded and more lethal. Its ability to strike U.S. ships and bases, target the critical infrastructure and population centers of our friends, and threaten access to one of the world’s most vital shipping lanes and economic lifelines, the Strait of Hormuz, will be dramatically enhanced 15 years on as compared to today.

Then, of course, there also remains the small matter of Iran’s ICBM program — left completely untouched by the JCPOA and, if anything, given a significant boost by its concession to do away with the U.N. restrictions on ballistic missiles. So the odds have just gotten much higher that in 15 years a future U.S. president thinking about taking military action will confront an Iran with the capability to land a warhead on Washington, New York, or some other major American city. And given that Iran’s breakout time will by then effectively be down to zero, who’s to say with high confidence that it might not be carrying a small nuclear payload of some sort? Facing that possibility, what are the chances that a future president would agree with Obama’s blithe assessment that the decision to attack Iran will be so much easier in 2030 than the circumstance that Obama faces today?

Economically. The JCPOA promises to dismantle the sanctions regime against Iran. In fairly short order, it will fill Iran’s coffers with up to $150 billion in cash. Over time, it promises hundreds of billions more in trade, investment, and technology. Iran will be open for business, no longer an international pariah to be shunned but the next hot emerging market to be courted. Like night follows day, Iran’s economy will grow in strength, probably quite dramatically.

In 15 years, any president trying to reverse this gold rush in a timely manner by re-imposing crippling multilateral sanctions is likely to find it a very heavy diplomatic lift. The political headwinds from European and Asian countries whose companies have developed deep stakes in Iran’s success will make meaningful action painfully slow — to say nothing of China and Russia who by that time might well brush off U.S. approaches altogether. Even if some progress is made, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in 15 years where a sanctions-free Iranian economy is not far more resilient and far less vulnerable to any future U.S. attempt to rewind the pressure clock back to 2015.

In light of all this, can President Obama really say with a straight face that his successor in 15 years will be better positioned than he is today to deploy economic coercion against the mullahs? It’s hard not to draw the conclusion that rather than expanding a future president’s toolkit for confronting Iran, the JCPOA will more likely end up dangerously narrowing U.S. options to precisely the binary choice that Obama insists he wants to avoid: either accepting an Iranian bomb or bombing Iran.

Regionally. With no JCPOA and subject to withering sanctions, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has already been on a rampage across the Middle East. With the JCPOA and sanctions dismantled, the IRGC promises to be — well, how to put this — an even more formidable force in the region. Everywhere you go in the Levant and the Gulf, Iranian power is already viewed as dangerously ascendant and unconstrained. American allies are demoralized and feeling abandoned. Now add to that toxic mix a diplomatic agreement by which the world’s great powers unanimously bless Iran’s becoming a nuclear-threshold state, shower the IRGC with tens of billions of dollars in cash, lift all restrictions on its ability to buy arms, develop ballistic missiles, and modernize its military, and what do you get? If you guessed an even more powerful Iran, better positioned to sow terror and instability, intimidate and terrorize its neighbors, attack U.S. interests and advance its hegemonic ambitions, you win. Does that sound like a weaker Iran to you?

Diplomatically. Heavily sanctioned, the target of multiple U.N. resolutions, unable to sell oil, move money or buy weapons, many of its top officials subject to international asset freezes and travel bans — that was Iran prior to the nuclear negotiations. A thorough-going pariah on the world stage, rivaling only North Korea for top billing. Not a bad target, all things considered, if you’re a U.S. president faced with some very difficult choices about going after Iranian nuclear capabilities.

Under the JCPOA, that all promises to be a distant memory in 15 years. In its place will be an Iran more or less fully welcomed back into the international community, its diplomats and politicians star attractions in the global corridors of power. Hundreds, if not thousands, of European, Asian, and probably American companies will by then have billions at stake in business deals with the mullahs. Iran’s position at the top of the world’s oil and gas exporters will be re-established. Iran’s economy will be booming, its military power and political influence growing, and its nuclear infrastructure rapidly expanding — all blessed, legitimated, and even assisted by the good graces of the JCPOA. So seriously, Mr. President, against which of these targets do you think it would be easier to try and raise an international posse to halt Iran’s nuclear advances — the pariah state of 2015 or the unshackled rising hegemon of 2030? Which of those scenarios do you think might engender the more damaging diplomatic blowback?

In his press conference, the president said “it is incumbent on the critics of this deal to explain how an American president is in a worse position 12, 13, 14, 15 years from now” if Iran decides to develop nuclear weapons. He again insisted that a future president, courtesy of the JCPOA, will be in a better position vis-a-vis Iran than we face today. And he closed with the claim that “I have not yet heard logic that refutes that.”

Hmmm. Not that he appreciates the concerns raised by the critics, takes them seriously, but believes the balance of risks favors going forward with the deal. Not that he understands that Iran is likely to benefit significantly from the JCPOA, but that over the course of 15 years the U.S. stands to benefit more. No. Instead, the president’s defense of the deal must resort to the extreme — and extremely dubious — claim that the JCPOA will actually leave Iran weaker in 15 years, with the suggestion that any opposing view lacks all logic. There is Obama on the one hand, with his unique insight and understanding of global politics and America’s national interests, and there are his critics on the other hand — clamoring for war and mired in petty politics, the special interest lobbies, and Obama Delusion Syndrome.

Not a particularly constructive posture for the President of the United States to adopt on the eve of what should be one of the most important national security debates of the past quarter century. But perhaps indicative of the president’s own sensitivity to the underlying weaknesses and contradictions of the fateful bargain that he has struck with an unreconstructed terror-sponsoring, American-hating radical Islamist theocracy. Cede an inch to any of the opposition’s arguments and the whole case for the JCPOA might start to unravel.

The fact is that there’s a very strong argument to be made that by almost any objective measure of power, the JCPOA risks leaving Iran a far more formidable and deadly adversary in 15 years, far better positioned to make the final push to nuclear weapons status. Recognition of that possibility ought to be the starting point for the development of a comprehensive Obama strategy to mitigate the dangers. Instead, it’s just another opportunity to bash the opposition as irrational and immoral partisans, know-nothings, and war mongers. Of course, in 15 years, the dangers left in the wake of the JCPOA will all be some other president’s problem anyway. Maybe that’s the point. Obama will have his diplomatic victory, the transformational foreign policy legacy he has craved, and a decent interval that allows him to escape Washington claiming that the mullahs did not get the bomb on his watch. And a decade and a half from now, when a future president must face the whirlwind that Obama has sown, well, who’s going to remember the distortions that were peddled at some long ago White House press conference anyway?

John Hannah is a senior counselor at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. 

Read in Foreign Policy