Total Pageviews

Search This Blog

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Deal or No Deal - The Case for Diplomacy with Iran Part I

Image 1: Bushehr nuclear reactor

The ongoing Iranian nuclear negotiations between the P-5+1 powers and Iran has generated a great deal of public debate on the relative merits of the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) framework released in early April. While technical negotiations based on the JPOA are not set to conclude until June 30th - and could certainly fail before then, the United States should seriously consider a final agreement similar to the JPOA as it best promotes US interests relative to its plausible alternatives: re-imposition of sanctions with the intent of trying to negotiate a "better deal" or military strikes against Iran's nuclear infrastructure. The word choice "consider" is appropriate given the final terms have yet to be negotiated. Policies must not be judged in a vacuum, the alternatives to the JPOA are less likely to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. A brief overview of the JPOA details will be provided followed by an analysis of alternatives, the viability of passing a nuclear deal given Congressional interference, and how the United States should proceed if an agreement with Iran can be reached.

The following JPOA details are paraphrased from a Department of State press release
  1. Iran’s stockpile of 10,000 kg of low-enriched uranium (LEU) would be reduced to 300 kg of 3.67 percent LEU for 15 years.
  2. Reduction in Iranian centrifuges from 19,000 IR-1 models to 6,104 for 10 years
  3. Iran’s inventory of 1,000 advanced IR-2 centrifuges would be mothballed and monitored
  4. Iran would not enrich Uranium beyond 3.67 percent for at least 15 years (90% is weapons grade but the time required for uranium enrichment accelerates beyond LEU) 
  5. Iran's will not build additional heavy water reactors and will limit current operations to hinder plutonium enrichment 
  6. Extremely intrusive IAEA monitoring and full access to Iranian nuclear facilities for 25 years and beyond - while not explicitly discussed by the JPOA, robust US signals intelligence would also assist in determining if Iran does not fulfill its obligations 
  7. Phased sanctions relief, P5+1 will be able to re-institute sanctions if Iran caught violating the deal
  8. Iran will remain a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in perpetuity 
The technical details above produce an agreement in which Iran would have a breakout time of one year for the first ten years of the agreement. Thus, even if Iran reneged on its obligations, the technical and scientific limitations of the enrichment process would keep Iran from obtaining weapons grade material for a year vs. the current 2-3 month breakout time. After a period of ten years the breakout time would gradually diminish until finally after 13 years Iran would essentially become a nuclear threshold state similar to Japan. Clearly the prospect of Iran achieving a nuclear threshold status is less than ideal from the perspective of the United States. However, alternative policies solutions will delay Iran's nuclear program to a lesser degree and will ultimately enact much greater costs to the United States. 

Proponents of additional sanctions argue the United States can force Iran to renegotiate a nuclear deal with more favorable terms such as the near complete dismantlement of Iran's nuclear infrastructure. Any new sanctions are likely to build off of the existing sanctions which are largely underpinned by the US dollar's status as the dominant global reserve currency. The dollar is widely recognized as a medium of exchange that is well regulated and stable (Zakaria, 2014). Thus, 87% of all foreign transactions in 2013 were conducted in dollars and more than 60% of all foreign exchange reserves - the amount of cash financial institutions hold to pay foreign obligations - were denominated in dollars (Bank for International Settlements, 2013). Through the Federal Reserve's licensing system, the United States Government can cut foreign countries off from using the dollar which would severely diminish a country's opportunities for international trade. However, new sanctions are unlikely to halt Iran's nuclear program despite enacting massive economic costs on Iran given the outcome of prior negotiations. 
"Between 2003 and 2005, under another practical president, Mohammad Khatami, Iran negotiated with three European Union powers a possible deal to place its nuclear program under constraints and inspections. The chief nuclear negotiator at the time was Hassan Rouhani, now Iran’s president.
Iran proposed to cap its centrifuges at very low levels, keep enrichment levels well below those that could be used for weapons and convert its existing enriched uranium into fuel rods (which could not be put to military use) ...But the talks collapsed because the Bush administration, acting through the British government, vetoed it. It was certain, Jenkins explained, that if the West could 'scare' the Iranians, 'they would give in.'... Harvard University’s Graham Allison, one of the United States’ foremost experts on nuclear issues, pointed out that “by insisting on maximalist demands and rejecting potential agreements, the first of which would have limited Iran to 164 centrifuges, we have seen Iran advance from 10 years away from producing a bomb to only months.” - Fareed Zakaria, 2015 [emphasis added]
As Fareed Zakaria argues, the technology required to enrich uranium is 70 years old. Even with sanctions Iran will generate enough revenue to fund a nuclear program similar to how North Korea has managed to enrich uranium despite intense sustained international pressure. Similarly, military strikes against Iran's nuclear infrastructure is unlikely to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon in the long-term. 

Image 2: Center for International and Strategic Studies (CSIS) graphic with predicted assets required to initiative strikes against Iran's nuclear infrastructure

A strong consensus exists within the national security community that the United States would be capable of conducting successful strikes against Iranian nuclear sites across the country. The strikes would not be swift as the United States would first have to disable Iran's integrated air defense systems (IADS) which include radar sites, air bases, surface to air missile batteries, etc. US forces would then have to utilize bunker busting munitions such as the 30,000 lb GBU-57A/B Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) to destroy hardened enrichment sites such as Fordow and Natanz. ISR assets such as the RQ-170 Sentinel and Northrup Grumman RQ-180 would assess the damage to Iran's facilities and Command and Control assets would determine if further strikes are needed. Finally, US forces would have to eliminate Iran's means of retaliating against US and allied forces in the region which would include conventional ballistic missile facilities, rocket sites, midget submarine bases, etc. The combination of tactical and logistic hurdles required to successfully target dozens of sites across Iran is a task that can only be carried out by the United States military. However, even a massive US operation against Iranian facilities will only delay Iran's nuclear program from between five to ten years at most or less than the JPOA (CSIS, 2012)

The problem lies in the fact that kinetic strikes will destroy Iran's physical nuclear infrastructure but the knowledge required to resume Iran's nuclear program is diffused throughout the country's scientists and university system. Thus, military strikes against Iran are inherently limited in what they can achieve. Furthermore, strikes against Iran would entail debilitating opportunity costs on behalf of the United States as resources from other operational commands - such as PACOM and EUCOM - would be required to both carry out the initial operation and remain in theater for deterrence operations for years afterward. Greater military commitment to the Middle East is definitively not in the interests of the United States. Especially if further involvement would halt the Asia re-balance which is required to safeguard sea lanes which facilitate trillions of dollars in US maritime trade each year, protect five treaty allies - in contrast none of the Gulf Cooperation Council (G.C.C.) countries are covered under formal US defense treaties, and "manage" the rise of China which has the economic and technological potential to pose the most significant long-term great power threat to the United States since the Soviet Union (though its important to recognize the current US-China relationship is a form of "strategic competition" rather than overt enemies like the US & USSR as well as many other caveats). Finally, US strikes against Iran would grant Iranian leaders with a substantial justification for acquiring nuclear weapons in order to deter future US attacks.

In terms of possible Congressional interference, the United States Senate overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan resolution 98-1 which would authorize Congress to hold a vote of disapproval pending the scheduled conclusion of negotiations in June 30th; Senator Tom Cotton (R, Ark.) was the sole dissenter. Given the nature of a vote of disapproval, a total of 34 Senators are required to ensure an Iranian nuclear deal goes into effect given the Presidential veto - a legislative task substantially easier than marshaling 60 votes in favor of the agreement (Berman, 2015).  The bill effectively enables the President to have a plausible chance at reaching a nuclear agreement with Iran now that the threat of Congressional interference has been substantially mitigated.

In summary, a diplomatic solution similar to the proposed JPOA would be the best solution to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon relative to its plausible alternatives. The deal would buy time for renewed diplomacy and some degree of normalization of relations, but its unlikely the deal will enable a broader US-Iran rapprochement (McManus, 2015). Preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is clearly a US strategic priority but additional sanctions and military action is unlikely to delay Iran's nuclear program in the long-term. Once Iran reaches threshold capacity 13 years after signing any potential agreement, a combination of military deterrence and economic incentives would be utilized to keep Iran from fielding nuclear weapons. The ideal outcome for the United States after 13 years is Iran's leaders decide a nuclear threshold state would provide adequate deterrence given that Iran possess the delivery systems and enriched uranium required to field nuclear weapons quickly if needed. Significant work is needed on behalf of the United States to build upon its conventional and nuclear deterrence capabilities in the region to assuage the legitimate concerns of G.C.C. allies which will be discussed later this week in Part II.



  1. Sending a Bunker-Buster Message to Iran,  Michael Makovsky and David Deptula, 2015.
  2. Analyzing the Impact of Preventive Strikes Against Iran’s Nuclear Facilities, Anthony H. Cordesman & Abdullah Toukan, 2012.
  3. U.S. Attack on Iran Would Take Hundreds of Planes, Ships, and Missiles, Noah Shachtman, 2012.
  4. Controversy Continues Over Iran’s Rockets And Weapons, Bill Sweetman, 2015.
  5. Artful Balance Future US Strategy and Force Posture in the Gulf, Bilal Y. Saab & Barry Pavel, 2015 
  6. The Iran Bill Clears the Senate, Russell Berman, 2015. 
  7. The danger of America's 'economic drone', Fareed Zakaria, 2014.
  8. Triennial Central Bank Survey Foreign exchange turnover in April 2013: preliminary global results, Bank for International Settlements, 2013.
  9. Why the Dollar Is Still King, Milton Ezrati, 2015. 
  10. Nuclear deal unlikely to make Iran a docile U.S. partner, Doyle McManus, 2015. 
  11. White House Looks to Ease Arab Fears Over Iran Nuclear Pact, Helene Cooper, 2015.
  12. Iran, Saudi Arabia fighting bloody proxy wars across region, Zeina Karam and Lee Keath, 2015.
  13. Rebel Arms Flow Is Said to Benefit Jihadists in Syria, David E. Sanger, 2012.
  14. Opinions A nuclear deal with Iran is the best option, Fareed Zakaria, 2015. 
  15. Netanyahu enters never-never land, Fareed Zakaria, 2015.

No comments:

Post a Comment