By Alan Dowd – ASCF Senior Fellow
July 2015 – President Obama promises that the controversial deal recently hammered out by U.S., European, Russian and Iranian diplomats will “cut off every single one of Iran’s pathways to a…nuclear weapons program.” This latest promise of peace in our time warrants close scrutiny.
The core problem with the deal is not in its details, but rather in the nature of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The president, hoping Iran lives up to his hopes, may believe Iran can be brought in from the cold. But the hard truth is that the Islamic Republic of Iran is a revolutionary regime committed to using violence and terror to upend the established global order.
There’s really nothing like the government of Iran anywhere on earth. Sure, other regimes challenge the global order; other regimes make common cause with terrorists. But the men who run Iran have normalized terrorism into a basic government function—just like building roads and schools. It could be argued that the Islamic Republic is not a regime that engages in terrorism, but rather a terrorist organization that runs a regime
The Islamic Republic of Iran has been waging a global guerilla insurgency since its birth 35 years ago. It engages in hostage-taking; threatens to close the vital sea lanes of the Strait of Hormuz; provides weapons, training and financial aid to Hamas, Palestine Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah; plans mafia-style hits against foreign diplomats; and trains and equips fighters in Bahrain, Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. Indeed, the Islamic Republic is deeply engaged in supporting Bashar Assad in Syria (shoveling between $6 billion and $15 billion annually to the Syrian dictator) and Hezbollah in Lebanon ($200 million annually).
Moreover, the Iranian government has waged a proxy war against the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq, with the blood of 500 American troops on its hands. As the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently concluded in their National Military Strategy, Iran “has undermined stability in many nations” and “brought misery to countless people.”
This disarmament deal will provide Tehran with more resources to sow chaos. As Dennis Ross, advisor to President Obama from 2009 to 2011, points out, the deal allows Tehran’s terrorist tyranny to “regain access to as much as $150 billion in frozen accounts in the coming year…it is inconceivable that the Revolutionary Guards won’t receive a payoff that they can use for aggressive purposes with the Shiite militias throughout the region.”
Equally worrisome, Iran is a serial violator of international nuclear agreements. The list is staggeringly long.
In 2002, dissident groups outed Iran’s illegal, clandestine nuclear-weapons program, exposing sites in Natanz and Arak.
In 2003-04, international nuclear inspectors reported that Iran had breached agreements to suspend uranium-enrichment activity, and Pakistan confirmed that A.Q. Khan, father of Pakistan’s bomb, had shared his secrets with Tehran.
In 2009, international inspectors found that Iran understated by a third its stocks of enriched uranium. Also in 2009, an illegal, secret, subterranean nuclear facility ringed with missiles was discovered in the mountains near Qom.
In 2010, the IAEA revealed evidence of “undisclosed activities” by the Iranian military to develop a nuclear warhead.
In 2011, the IAEA concluded that Iran “carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear device.”
When it was suspected in 2013 that Iran conducted tests for nuclear-bomb triggers in Parchin, the issue was not just papered over, but quite literally paved over by the Iranian military. The IAEA had tried to gain access to the facility more than 10 times.
As recently as December 2014, U.S. agencies accused Iran of illegally acquiring components to aid in the production of weapons-grade plutonium.
And it pays to recall something often forgotten or overlooked: Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which means much of its nuclear program is suspect—Iran has enough oil to meet its current energy demands for 256 years—and all of its weapons-related activities are illegal.
In short, this is a regime that cannot and should not be trusted. No matter what the president promises, this deal does not allow for the sort of unfettered access and failsafe monitoring necessary to keep a dishonest partner honest. Instead, it gives Iran 24-day windows to respond to IAEA inspection requests—plenty of time to hide telltale traces of a weapons program and game the system.
Treaties are only as good as the character of the governments that agree to them—or the unpleasantness of the consequences of breaking them. The character of the Islamic Republic of Iran is so low that the consequences and costs of breaking this treaty must be extremely high. Regrettably, that’s lacking in this treaty, which the White House refuses to call on treaty. (Congress, by the way, is considering the treaty under procedures that turn the treaty-review process on its head, but that’s a subject for another essay.)
“If Iran violates this deal,” the president counters, “the sanctions we imposed that have helped cripple the Iranian economy…would snap back into place promptly.” That may make for a good applause line, but there’s little substance to these snap-back sanctions. It took six years for the Bush and Obama administrations to cajole Europe, Russia and the UN Security Council to agree on economic sanctions against Iran. If/when Iran backslides, it’s likely the United States would re-apply its sanctions, but the notion that Europe or Russia would follow suit is fanciful.
“In time of crises, peace treaties are worthless,” President Theodore Roosevelt observed in 1914. He hammered that point repeatedly during the Great War, pointing out the “utter worthlessness of treaties” and how they “offer not even the smallest protection against such disasters.” Importantly, these words come from a man who believed in diplomacy, who negotiated treaties that staved off and ended wars in Europe and the Pacific, who truly earned a Nobel Peace Prize for his diplomatic efforts. But years of experience taught him that “diplomacy is utterly useless where there is no force behind it.”
A century later, this truth remains unchanged because man’s nature remains unchanged: Bad guys do bad things. A piece of paper, a UN resolution, an international conference seldom can correct or prevent bad behavior.
As to the specifics of the deal, the most troubling and obvious is that it essentially allows Iran to remain a threshold nuclear power forever.
As Ross explains, “The Iranians are not required to dismantle their enrichment infrastructure, are allowed to continue at least limited research and development on their five advanced models of centrifuges, and will be permitted to build as large an industrial nuclear program as they want after year 15…The gap between threshold status and weapons capability will necessarily become small, and not difficult for the Iranians to bridge.”
According to Sen. Bob Menendez, “We have gone from preventing Iran having a nuclear ability to managing it.”
This is a dramatic departure for U.S. foreign policy. As Henry Kissinger and George Shultz have pointed out, “For 20 years, three presidents of both major parties proclaimed that an Iranian nuclear weapon was contrary to American and global interests—and that they were prepared to use force to prevent it. Yet negotiations that began 12 years ago as an international effort to prevent an Iranian capability to develop a nuclear arsenal are ending with an agreement that concedes this very capability, albeit short of its full capacity in the first 10 years.”
The president promises that the deal allows the international community “to closely monitor Iran’s program anddetect any covert nuclear weapons program.” Given a) Iran’s track record of evasion, and b) the international community’s track record of failure when it comes to policing WMD proliferation, the odds are against the president’s bet.
For the sake of argument, let’s stipulate that Iran follows the letter of the law and allows international monitors to scour Iran. The mullahs could simply take their nuclear program offshore—and may already have. It’s an open secret that Iran and North Korea maintain what amounts to an exchange program for rogue regimes, assisting each other in perfecting nuclear technology, developing missiles, and concealing the breadth and depth of these interlaced programs. Asia specialist Gordon Chang reports that there’s an entire base inside North Korea “housing Tehran’s weapons specialists.”
Conversely, let’s stipulate that Iran continues its drive toward the nuclear club by using a facility the IAEA and CIA are unaware of, and in the not-too-distant future “surprises” the world by testing a nuke—just like North Korea, Pakistan and India before it. At the very least, this will trigger Saudi Arabia, Egypt and perhaps Turkey to go nuclear, touching off a new nuclear arms race with ramifications far beyond the Middle East. The Saudis have already signaled they will match whatever Iran does on the nuclear front.
“For the U.S., a decade-long restriction on Iran’s nuclear capacity is a possibly hopeful interlude,” Kissinger and Shultz explain. “For Iran’s neighbors—who perceive their imperatives in terms of millennial rivalries—it is a dangerous prelude to an even more dangerous permanent fact of life.” More alarming still, they point out the vast difference between the U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms race and the looming Middle East nuclear arms race: “Among the original nuclear powers, geographic distances and the relatively large size of programs combined with moral revulsion to make surprise attack all but inconceivable. How will these doctrines translate into a region where sponsorship of non-state proxies is common, the state structure is under assault and death on behalf of jihad is a kind of fulfillment?”
Deploying his army of straw men, the president argues that the West has no other choice than this one-sided deal or war. The reality is that this deal—which permits an outlaw regime to be a threshold-nuclear state—is what could trigger war. In anticipation of a bad deal, Iran’s wary neighbors have already engaged in an unprecedented military-spending binge. Defense spending in the UAE has jumped 135 percent since 2007, in Saudi Arabia 112 percent. Saudi Arabia became the world’s biggest arms importer in 2014. Earlier this year, Israel sought, and Washington approved, a massive $1.897-billion arms purchase. Ross, not known as a hawk, has advocated equipping Israel with B-52s and 30,000-pound Massive Ordnance Penetrator bombs.
Published reports suggest that Israel, which has launched preemptive counterproliferation airstrikes against Iraq (1981) and Syria (2007), came very close to hitting Iran’s nuclear sites in 2010. Saudi Arabia has reportedly tested how it would “stand down” its air defenses to make way for an Israeli strike against Iran. Israel and Saudi Arabia are even exploring ways to jointly address a nuclear Iran. Of course, given the swelling arsenals of the Gulf states—and their increasingly independent, interventionist approach to defense—it’s possible the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council, along with Egypt, could act on its own against Iran, without risking the domestic blowback of collaborating with Israel, and without the constraining baggage of collaborating with Washington.
There’s one other reason the American people and their representatives in Congress should think long and hard about this agreement. If Iran has a terrible record when it comes to following the rules of nonproliferation, the United States has a terrible record when it comes to enforcing those rules and knowing when they’ve been broken.
The State Department badly underestimated North Korea’s nuclear program in the early 1990s, and U.S. intelligence agencies badly underestimated North Korea’s missile capability in the late 1990s. The entire government was caught flatfooted when India and Pakistan crashed the nuclear club in 1998. U.S. intelligence agencies were wrong about Iraq’s highly-advanced nuclear-weapons program in 1990-91 and wrong again about Iraq’s largely-atrophied WMD program in 1998 and 2003—compensating for underestimating before Operation Desert Storm by overestimating before Operation Desert Fox and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
However, we don’t have to dig too deep into history for evidence of the U.S. government’s lackluster record on monitoring and/or disarming rogue WMD programs.
In September 2013, after Assad reopened the Pandora’s Box of chemical warfare, the president turned to Vladimir Putin for help. The resulting deal to disarm Syria, the president boasted, “represents an important concrete step toward the goal of moving Syria’s chemical weapons under international control so that they may ultimately be destroyed…There are consequences should the Assad regime not comply with the framework agreed today. And, if diplomacy fails, the United States remains prepared to act.” Never one to miss a curtain call, the president added during his 2014 State of the Union: “American diplomacy, backed by the threat of force, is why Syria’s chemical weapons are being eliminated.”
Some of us had serious doubts about the Putin-brokered deal at the time. The intervening two years have confirmed those doubts. We now know that Assad has violated the letter and spirit of that disarmament deal. For those who care to look—for those who care—the proof of the Syrian disarmament deal’s utter failure is everywhere. The Washington Post, June 20, 2015: “Barbarism with chlorine gas goes unchecked in Syria.” Voice of America, June 17, 2015: “Syrian doctors present evidence of new chlorine gas attacks to U.S. Congress.” The Economist, May 13, 2015: “The gassing continues.” Reuters, May 8, 2015: “Weapons inspectors find undeclared sarin and VX traces in Syria.” The New York Times, May 6, 2015: “Two years after President Bashar al-Assad agreed to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, there is mounting evidence that his government is flouting international law to drop jerry-built chlorine bombs on insurgent-held areas.” An unnamed diplomat, May 8, 2015: “They have been lying about what they did with sarin.”
So, when we hear President Obama promise that his latest disarmament deal will “cut off every single one of Iran’s pathways to a…nuclear weapons program,” allows us “to closely monitor Iran’s program and detect any covert nuclear weapons program,” and “prevents the most serious threat—Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon,” the record of his administration, the record of previous administrations and the record of the outlaw regime in Iran give us every reason to brace for the worst.