President Donald Trump promised to rigorously and radically enforce the Iran nuclear agreement, which he called “the worst deal ever negotiated.” It sounds tough, but it’s an approach that plays into the hands of the Iranian mullahs.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action presents the Trump administration with a bedeviling paradox: The greater the focus on enforcement, the higher the likelihood Iran will emerge with nuclear weapons.
The nuclear deal contains limited, temporary and reversible constraints that disappear over time. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations nuclear watchdog tasked with monitoring the deal, may be able to detect Iranian violations. But Iran doesn’t need to cheat. In fact, it has every incentive not to do so.
Under the terms of the agreement, Iran’s uranium and plutonium pathways to atomic weapons expand over time. The deal allows for Iran to ramp up the testing of advanced centrifuges in seven years and install these centrifuges in its Natanz enrichment facility in nine years. Breakout time, the amount of time needed to enrich one bomb’s worth of fissile material to nuclear grade, drops from one year to months and then weeks.
In less than 15 years, the majority of restrictions on vital components of a military-nuclear program vanish. This includes bans on enrichment above 3.67% purity, the stockpiling of uranium, the use of the buried-under-a-mountain Fordow centrifuge plant, and the building of additional enrichment facilities and heavy-water reactors.
At that point, Iran will emerge with an industrial-size nuclear program with a near-zero breakout capability and much easier ways to sneak around restrictions. After the disappearance of the arms embargo three and a half years from now and the missile embargo in six and a half years, Tehran can significantly enhance its military power by acquiring advanced conventional weapons and further expanding its long-range ballistic-missile program to include intercontinental ballistic missiles. No country developing ICBMs has ever not obtained nuclear weapons.
The IAEA faces daunting tasks: It must monitor an enormous nuclear program, widely dispersed on a territory more than twice the size of Texas. It will need to secure access to military sites in order to block weaponization activities, but Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has said these are out of bounds. It will have to ensure that uranium isn’t diverted to clandestine enrichment sites, which could be powered by a small number of easier-to-hide advanced centrifuges.
And, with an Iranian economy possibly doubled in size by then, with hundreds of billions of dollars of foreign investment from Asia, Europe and Russia, few countries will join the U.S. in snapping back sanctions should Iran violate the deal. With Iran at near-zero nuclear breakout, even the most crippling sanctions aren’t likely to stop a determined regime.
If rigorous enforcement looks to be a daunting task, what could the Trump administration do to get out from under this deal and perhaps into a better one?
First, Mr. Trump must address the Iranian threat the way Ronald Reagan treated the Soviet one. In the early 1980s, Reagan instructed his National Security Council to develop a comprehensive assault to undermine the Soviet Union. The Trump NSC needs a similar plan, one that uses both covert and overt economic, financial, political, diplomatic, cyber and military power to subvert and roll back the Iranian threat.
Mr. Khamenei has alluded to his regime being “on the edge of a cliff” as a result of the 2009 democratic uprisings. Mr. Trump should create the distinct impression that America will help the millions of Iranians who despise the regime to push it over that edge.
Second, the Trump administration, with an assist from Congress, needs to reinvigorate the sanctions regime aimed at Iran’s support for terrorism, ballistic-missile development, human-rights abuses, war crimes, and destabilizing activities in the Middle East. These sanctions need to target, in particular, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which controls strategic areas of Iran’s economy.
Foreign diplomats may balk, but these sanctions are fully compliant with the nuclear deal. International banks and companies will think twice about working with Iranian companies, especially if doing so might mean losing access to the U.S. market. The Trump administration should work with Congress to design a statutory architecture that freezes the Iranian nuclear program where it is today and impose new crippling sanctions if it expands in any way that drops nuclear breakout time to less than one year.
The Trump administration also needs to put Iran on notice that the U.S. will use force to counter Iranian aggression. Sanctions without the credible threat of military action will always be insufficient to change the regime’s calculus.
While putting the squeeze on the regime, the administration should make it clear to the Chinese, Europeans and Russians that Washington is prepared to negotiate a follow-on agreement that addresses the fatal flaws of the original deal. Tehran, still struggling to attract foreign investment because of its continued malign activities, can benefit from such an offer if it’s prepared to come back to the table and halt its subversive behavior.
Rigorously enforcing the Iran deal is a delusion. There is a better way forward than enabling the Islamic Republic to take patient pathways to nuclear weapons, ICBMs and regional dominance.
Mr. Dubowitz is chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @mdubowitz.