Nineteen years ago, I was in Ukraine when the last nuclear warheads, orphaned during the Soviet Union’s breakup, rolled out of the country. As an assistant secretary of Defense at the time, I had worked with Washington colleagues and foreign counterparts to eliminate those nuclear weapons and thus one danger at the dawn of the post-Cold War world. Together — with bipartisan support in Congress led by Sens. Sam Nunn, a Democrat, and Richard Lugar, a Republican — we succeeded.
Today, the Iran deal provides the opportunity to address an even greater nuclear threat. Congress should support it because, once implemented, the deal will remove a critical source of risk and uncertainty in a vitally important but tumultuous region. Indeed, the deal is best seen as a part of our broader strategic approach to the Middle East, which aims to defend American interests, protect our friends, especially Israel, and confront the region’s two principal security challenges, the Islamic State terrorist group and Iran.
On Iran, the deal will prevent that nation from getting a nuclear weapon in a comprehensive and verifiable way. Its implementation will block the pathways Iran could take to build a nuclear bomb. That long-term outcome is more durable than one a military strike would bring about. While I am responsible for that alternative and know that it would be effective at setting back Iran’s nuclear program, it would do so with potentially serious second- and third-order repercussions, and the likely need to repeat attacks once Iran sought to rebuild its capability.
The military option is real today and, as secretary of Defense, I will be sure that remains true well into the future. Iran might walk away from the deal or cheat, which are risks in any negotiated deal. But, unlike the arms control deals of the Cold War, nothing in the Iran deal constrains the U.S. Defense Department in any way or its ability to carry out such a mission.
Indeed, the reality is that any prospective military option, if called for, will be more effective under this deal — not less. Iran will have a smaller and more concentrated civil nuclear program, and the deal’s verification provisions will give us more information with which to plan.
No one is saying this deal will fix every problem with Iran or in the Middle East. While it removes the greatest danger — Iran with a nuclear weapon — the deal does not address Iran’s extensive malign activities in the region. But because the deal places no limits whatsoever on the United States military, it will not hinder America’s strategic approach to the region or our military’s important work to check those destabilizing activities and stand by our friends in the Middle East.
Indeed, as I told some of the more than 35,000 American troops in the region when I visited last month, the United States military will remain “full speed ahead.” We’re deterring regional threats, maintaining a robust military posture — including our most sophisticated ground, maritime, and air and ballistic missile defense assets, as well as the ability to quickly surge overwhelming additional forces — and continuing to increase our cooperation with Israel and our Persian Gulf partners in meaningful ways.
For example, to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge, the United States has made available its most advanced capabilities, such as the stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Following President Obama’s Camp David meeting with Gulf leaders in May, we have offered some of our Gulf partners sophisticated defense equipment, including the THAAD ballistic missile defense system, and help to improve their ground and special operations forces.
Deal or no deal all this work will continue, and, in fact, it will redouble.
While getting nuclear weapons out of Ukraine resolved only one of many problems in the post-Cold War era, it removed a serious danger from an unstable region at a time of great change. And while Ukraine then is obviously different from Iran today, this deal gives us the unique chance to verifiably prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, removing a more urgent threat from an even more unstable and changing region.
I learned then that the chance to remove a nuclear threat might not come back and should be seized. This Iran deal is another.
Ash Carter is the 25th secretary of Defense of the United States.