By Robert G. Gard Jr.
April 13, 2015
The United States and its international partners – collectively known as “the P5+1” – have reached a framework agreement with Iran over the future of its nuclear program; debate in Washington now focuses on whether it’s a “good deal.
Many, including a majority of the Senate’s Republican caucus, oppose any deal and will try just about anything to stop it – including writing a letter to Iran’s leaders pledging to undo the agreement once President Barack Obama leaves office.
Others aren’t so open about their opposition.
A handful of senators led by Republican Bob Corker and Democrat Robert Menendez are pushing legislation – supported by Virginia Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner – that would allow Congress to vote on the final agreement.
This is a dangerous game that could ultimately derail diplomacy.
The reality is that the outline of the framework agreement is indeed a good one – blocking all of Iran’s paths to building a nuclear weapon and imposing a rigorous inspection regime in exchange for phased sanctions relief.
But what this debate has lacked, and will likely be missing in the coming weeks, is discussion of the possible alternatives to a negotiated agreement with Iran.
If there were no framework agreement and the deal fell through, the next-best possible outcome would be that the Iranians are seen as the spoilers. Why? Unity among the P5+1 – the United States, England, France, China, Russia and Germany – has been the most important factor in pressuring the Iranians to the negotiating table. An effective sanctions regime requires international participation.
If Iran were responsible for blowing up the talks, it’s likely that the crippling sanctions that the international community has rallied around would remain in place.
That’s why Corker’s bill carries so much risk.
If a majority in Congress votes to disapprove or even delay the deal, our partners will conclude we can’t live up to our end of the bargain. What then? It’s likely Russia, China and other key allies that have held off buying Iranian oil will re-engage the Iranian market, thus relieving the pressure that brought Iran to the table in the first place.
Without that pressure, Iran would ultimately be free to ramp up its nuclear program, which has essentially been frozen since the interim agreement was reached in November 2013.
In this scenario, the United States would be left with a few options, all bad.
One would be to continue the diplomacy track and try to work again with the international community to reapply sanctions pressure. But how could we convince them that we’re genuinely interested in diplomacy when Congress just derailed the agreement? This process could take years, if it ever happened at all.
The Iranians have enriched uranium to near-weapons grade before – they eliminated that stockpile in compliance with the interim deal – and without constraints, they’ll probably do it again, bringing the country closer to building a nuclear weapon. How will the U.S. respond? The only option at this point would be to launch a campaign of air strikes, which would be costly, only delay Iran’s nuclear program for a few years at best, and would, as former CIA Director Michael Hayden put it, “guarantee that which we are trying to prevent – an Iran that will spare nothing to build a nuclear weapon and that would build it in secret.”
I’m hopeful, even optimistic, that the United States and its partners can reach a final formal agreement based on the framework that will effectively block Iran from building nuclear weapons. But if the framework agreement is undercut by Congress, those crying “bad deal” should be forced to answer: What’s your alternative?
Robert G. Gard Jr. is a retired Army lieutenant general and chairman of the board of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.