While President Barack Obama has secured the Democratic support to protect his nuclear agreement with Iran in Congress, that agreement increasingly resembles a house of cards that likely will collapse under the weight of its own contradictions.
The contradictions – as reflected in both the text and statements about it by U.S. and Iranian leaders – span such issues as the shelf life of sanctions and conditions of sanctions relief, the breadth of the inspections regime, the response by U.S. allies in the region, and the impact on Iranian behavior. That means that far from removing Iran’s nuclear program as an issue of immediate U.S. concern – enabling Washington to focus on other issues of regional instability – the agreement and Tehran’s response to it almost surely will put the issue atop the agenda of America’s next president.
Take sanctions. Beyond the $100 billion to $150 billion in up-front sanctions relief, Iran will get many billions more only as it complies with the agreement over time. “[S]anctions relief is tied strictly to performance,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in his high-profile speech in Philadelphia last week, and “nuclear-related sanctions can snap back into place.”
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, however, now demands that all sanctions be lifted immediately and permanently or “there will not be a trade-off” in Iranian compliance with the restrictions on its nuclear program.
Moreover, in a provision of the agreement that has received far too little attention, “snap-back” sanctions are really a fiction. “Iran has stated,” reads the provision which, by virtue of signing the agreement, the United States accepts, “that if sanctions are reinstated in whole or in part, Iran will treat that as grounds to cease performing its commitments under the [agreement] in whole or in part.”
Thus, while U.S. officials say sanctions relief is tied to Iranian behavior, Iran’s ultimate decision-maker demands full sanctions relief now and both sides acknowledge that Iran won’t accept any return of sanctions later.
Or take inspections. U.S. officials say that even with the 24 days Iran gets to comply with International Atomic Energy Agency requests to inspect suspicious sites, Iran can’t fully hide its weapons-related work. “There is no way in 24 days, or 24 months, or 24 years for that matter,” Kerry declared, “to destroy all the evidence of illegal activity that has been taking place regarding fissile material.”
However, as much as top nuclear experts question that claim, it misses a key point about the inspection regime that, like the sanctions provision cited above, has received far too little attention. Yes, Iran can take 24 days to comply, but the agreement says nothing about what happens if Iran refuses to do so after 24 days. Simply put, the United States and its global partners have no agreed-upon next step to force compliance with inspection requests.
Post-24-day confrontations seem inevitable anyway, because top Iranian officials have vowed to prohibit inspections at Iran’s military sites. In a sense, the U.S. and other parties to the agreement have conceded the point by agreeing to let Iran do its own inspections at its controversial Parchin military site, where International Atomic Energy Agency experts have long suspected that it conducted military-related nuclear research.
Or take regional stability. The agreement, Kerry said, is good for Israel and the Gulf States because it “will remove a looming threat from a uniquely fragile region [and] discourage others from trying to develop nuclear arms.”
Unfortunately, Israel, Saudi Arabia and other U.S. regional allies disagree, and several Arab nations are planning their own nuclear programs in response to what they see as Iran’s inevitable nuclear weaponry. That will make the Middle East an even more dangerous powder keg than it is today.
Or take Iranian behavior. Obama theorizes that this agreement and the sanctions relief that comes with it could convince Iran’s leaders to switch their attention away from their military program and toward the economic and social challenges that bedevil the country, allowing its people to prosper. Top Iranian officials, however, have retained a steady drumbeat of “Death to America” bluster in the aftermath of the agreement, vowing no change in behavior toward the “Great Satan” and reiterating their promise to destroy Israel.
Thus, rather than give America a respite from the Iranian nuclear issue for a decade, the loopholes inherent in it – and the behavior of the Iranian regime – guarantee that the issue will remain a top-line U.S. challenge.
Lawrence J. Haas, former communications director for Vice President Al Gore, is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.