Congress Must Strengthen Iran Deal

Opinion Articles

The nuclear deal with Iran should be evaluated on four criteria:

·     Is the agreement technically sound?

·     Are the implementation procedures, including verification, robust and reliable?

·     Is the agreement balanced in terms of U.S. and Iranian trade-offs?

·     Does the agreement ultimately advance broader U.S. national security interests?

Is the Agreement Technically Sound?

The agreement marks a shift in original U.S. goals from eliminating key pillars of a potential Iranian nuclear weapons program to constraining the program. While the agreement constrains Iran’s large-scale uranium enrichment and plutonium production—the material needed to produce a bomb—it does not eliminate them. And because constraints are time limited, the agreement, even if implemented, only delays an Iranian nuclear capability.

The agreement does, however, legitimize Iran’s nuclear enrichment, for which it is currently in violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions. In this sense, the agreement is a major victory for Tehran. Iran has consistently defied the international community by insisting on “its right” to enrich uranium. Now, Iran can be within a year of acquiring nuclear weapons without violating any rules for a decade.

After a decade, Iran could move even closer to acquiring nuclear weapons, perhaps within days or hours without violating any agreement.

Terms of the Deal

Under the deal, Iran will receive sanctions relief, and the unfreezing of certain assets. Iran will see a huge influx of money, which will allow the Iranian economy to grow.

Implementing the agreement will pose challenges. The inspection and verification system is much better than what we have now, but it has weaknesses. Chief among them is that it does not provide for automatic access to nuclear sites any place, any time.

Iran will continue to negotiate and renegotiate the terms on implementation and verification. It is worth noting that conflicts over the verification provisions of the disarmament agreement with Iraq ultimately led to war. Iran is far more sophisticated and clever than Iraq, and will probably avoid the same mistakes. But Iran has every incentive to cheat. Despite the snap-back provision, it will be difficult for the United States and its allies to re-impose sanctions even upon a determination that Iran is violating the agreement.

Domestic Implications

Will the nuclear agreement moderate and transform the Iranian regime?

The Obama administration assumes that a nuclear agreement will strengthen moderates in Iran. Yet it is equally if not more likely that the agreement will strengthen the current regime.

The Iranian population generally wants economic growth, better services and normalcy with the world. They are hoping that the agreement will improve their lives.

The agreement will give the Iranian regime more resources to address the people's’ economic needs. As it delivers on the economic front, it will resist political change, calculating that economic improvements will lower the demand for political reform.

Regional Implications

The Obama administration hopes that the nuclear deal will moderate Iran’s regional policies. Iran is well on its way to achieving regional domination through its gains in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.

While the agreement may prompt U.S. friends such as the UAE, Israel, and Saudi Arabia to balance to a greater extent against Iran, it has also undermined confidence in the United States. They note that Washington is allowing Iran to become a constrained nuclear threshold state for a specified period, and then remove the constraints with international acceptance. This is a fundamental change.

If other nations in the Middle East follow the Iranian example, we could end up with a proliferation of threshold nuclear states in the region. Given the concessions with Iran, the United States will not be on strong grounds if it tries block Saudi Arabia from becoming a threshold state.


Whether the nuclear agreement ultimately advances U.S. interests depends on the follow-on steps that the Obama administration and Congress take.

Regardless of how Congress reacts to the deal, the Obama administration will need to address Arab concerns, which are more focused on Iran’s regional policies than its nuclear program. The administration can do so by pursuing the nuclear agreement in tandem with steps to shift the balance of power away from Iran. The priorities here are to catalyze settlements in Syria and Yemen, and prevent Iraq from becoming an Iranian bridgehead.

Congress in turn should condition approval of the agreement on two issues.

First, verification procedures need to be strengthened to allow for freer inspections. Congress also must carefully review the procedures for the so-called snapback provision for reinstating sanctions in case of an Iranian violation.

Second, Congress should study the agreement in the context of regional geopolitics and Iran's internal politics. Congress should make approval of the agreement contingent on the administration producing a coherent plan to contain Iran’s push for regional hegemony and bolster moderates within Iran.

Zalmay Khalilzad is a Counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He is the former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations.

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