Ending the nuclear deal could set Iran down the same path as North Korea

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Q&A featuring the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies’ Siegfried Hecker and Abbas Milani. Siegfried Hecker is a top nuclear security expert and senior fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC). Abbas Milani is the Hamid and Christina Moghadam Director of Iranian Studies and affiliate at the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law. Written by CISAC’s Clifton Parker, this piece was originally featured in Stanford News.

If the U.S. abandoned the Iran nuclear deal, it would harm America’s credibility on nonproliferation issues and make it more difficult to solve the North Korean crisis, Stanford scholars say.

On Friday, Oct. 13, President Trump announced that he will not recertify the Iran nuclear deal, and he has asked Congress to pass a new law, spelling out conditions under which sanctions could be re-imposed.

Walking away from the Iran deal now could similarly open the doors for Tehran to build a nuclear bomb.

Signed in 2015, the nuclear deal framework is between Iran and what is known as the “P5+1” group of world powers: the United States, United Kingdom, France, China, Russia and Germany.

Advocates of the deal say it helped avert a possible war with Iran and a Middle Eastern nuclear arms race. Critics say it will only delay Iran’s march toward a nuclear bomb. The agreement aims to limit Iran’s ability to create nuclear weapons; in return, Iran received relief from economic penalties and sanctions.

Siegfried Hecker and Abbas Milani speak about similarities between Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear development, Iran’s reactions to the deal (and potential changes) and the global implications of a U.S. departure.

If the U.S. cancels the Iran nuclear deal, could Iran follow a path similar to the one North Korea has taken?

Hecker: An important lesson the Trump administration should learn from is what happened in October 2002 when the Bush administration couldn’t wait to walk away from the Clinton administration’s “Agreed Framework” deal with Pyongyang. That led to North Korea withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, expelling the international inspectors and building a nuclear bomb. Walking away from the Iran deal now could similarly open the doors for Tehran to build a nuclear bomb.

I think the agreement was able to get more than I ever thought possible.

How might this change our relationships with other countries and nuclear powers?

Hecker: The other parties that signed the Iran deal are all strongly in favor of keeping the deal, so it will leave the U.S. even more isolated than it has already become. It is not clear what the effect would be in Israel where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposes the deal, but where many voices favor it.

Are the inspection standards in this deal rigorous?

Hecker: The deal has more stringent inspection regimes and rights than previous nuclear agreements. Some in the U.S. call for even more intrusive inspections, such as to defense sites, that essentially no country is willing to have inspected. I think the agreement was able to get more than I ever thought possible.

How is the deal perceived in Iran?

Milani: I think the critical point to know is that there is not one voice or view that reflects the hopes and aspirations of Iran. The radical conservatives among the clergy and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps were critical of the deal. They condemned it as the most “shameful” agreement in modern Iranian history. They lambasted Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani for having made far too many concessions. Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, tried to keep a safe distance from the deal — lest he antagonize his badly needed and shrinking radical conservative base — and yet, at every major turn, endorsed it.

For the regime, faced with calamitous economic challenges, having the deal and ending the sanctions was an existential must. For the same reason, the vast majority of Iranians, facing the drudgeries of a dying economy, favored the deal. They also hoped that the deal would usher in new relations with the world and the U.S. — a possible harbinger for a more free Iran.

The Trump administration’s notion that Iran is not abiding by the “spirit” of the deal is hard to enforce.

How would Iran likely react to a strict enforcement approach often urged by the Trump administration?

Milani: It is not clear what the Trump administration means by a more “strict enforcement.” The agreement has placed fairly rigorous limits on Iran’s nuclear activity given the unique abilities of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to monitor the program. Might Iran cheat? It might, but no “strict” enforcement can eliminate such a possibility.

There are, moreover, areas that have by all accounts been consciously left ambiguous in the deal. Is, for example, Iran required to curtail its missile program or contain its regional activities? Iran is adamant that these provisions were never part of the deal. Finally, the Trump administration’s notion that Iran is not abiding by the “spirit” of the deal is hard to enforce. One side’s perceived spirit might be deemed by the other side as nothing but wishful thinking.

You can’t strengthen a deal you no longer are a part of.

Are there ways the deal could be strengthened and Iran’s regional ambitions checked?

Milani: There surely are ways to strengthen any deal. The first step is, by clear indication, that all sides will abide by it. The U.S. is now the only country in the agreement that has indicated its desire to abrogate the deal. You can’t strengthen a deal you no longer are a part of.

It will be a bonanza for the radical conservatives if the U.S. unilaterally walks away from the deal. Khamenei’s mantra that the U.S. can never be trusted will be confirmed, Iran will harvest the economic benefits of the end of sanctions and radical conservatives will be able to blame their own failed management on U.S. sanctions.

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The Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies is Stanford’s premier research institute for global affairs.

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FSI Stanford

FSI Stanford

The Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies is Stanford’s premier research institute for international affairs. Faculty views are their own.

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