By Dr. Jim Walsh, Council Board Member
Extending negotiations with Iran over its nuclear power program is both good and bad. The good news is that the interim agreement, or Joint Plan of Action, will continue in force. It has been the most effective tool for reducing the danger of an Iranian nuclear weapon.
The bad news is that, despite substantial progress, the negotiators failed to seal the deal when they had the opportunity and now risk the whole process unraveling. Already hard-liners in Congress are vowing new sanctions that would undermine, if not mortally wound, the delicate negotiations.
Congress has a laundry list of demands, insisting that only a perfect and one-sided deal will do. In Tehran, hard-line officials, like their Washington counterparts, have staked out maximal positions that are similarly unrealistic.
Ronald Reagan faced his own hard-liners during nuclear negotiations but stared them down. He noted that “‘compromise’ was a dirty word to them. They wanted all or nothing, and they wanted it all at once. If you don’t get it all, some said, don’t take anything.”
Reagan wisely ignored them.
If Congress moves to punish Iran with new sanctions, Iran will respond by dramatically expanding its nuclear program.
How do we know this? History. In 2005, nuclear negotiations collapsed when the Bush administration insisted that Iran capitulate and scrap its inventory of 164 centrifuges. Washington wanted the perfect deal or no deal at all, so it got no deal. With the end of negotiations, Iran went from 164 centrifuges to 19,000. It also enriched uranium to 20 percent — a top concern of those worried about the proliferation of dangerous nuclear material. Iran faced stiff economic sanctions. But in the end, both sides lost.
Fast-forward to 2014. If the negotiating parties dig in and are unable to compromise, what happens?
Dramatic expansion of Iran’s nuclear program: Iranian officials have already stated that if the negotiations fail, they will resume producing 20 percent enriched uranium. Ending 20 percent enrichment was the most important result of the interim nuclear deal reached last year. In addition, Iran would fire up its 1,000 never-before-operated advanced centrifuges. There would be no limits on Iranian enrichment.
Shorter breakout time: Given that expansion, Iran’s so-called breakout time would dramatically shrink. Breakout time refers to how long it would take a country to produce one bomb’s worth of nuclear material.
“Darker” Iranian nuclear program: Thanks to the interim nuclear agreement currently in force, the International Atomic Energy Agency has daily access to Iran’s enrichment plants and better access to its other facilities. It doubled the number of inspectors on the ground. That all goes away if negotiations collapse. We will know far less about what is happening.
Path to (another) war involving the U.S. or Israel: As Iran’s nuclear program expands and becomes less transparent, there will be increasing calls in the U.S. and Israel for military strikes. It is not axiomatic that war will follow, but there is no doubt the chances increase substantially. What’s more, a military strike against Iran would be likely to precipitate the very thing it is supposed to prevent: an Iranian decision to build nuclear weapons.
Stronger pro-nuclear weapons faction in Iran: The political effect in Iran of a failed negotiation will be to strengthen Tehran’s hard-liners, including those who harbor nuclear weapons ambitions. Ironically, the Iranian bomb advocates’ best allies are hard-liners in Congress.
The stakes are high, and the deadline is here. It is time for President Barack Obama, like Reagan, to stare down his hard-liners and make the tough choices that will secure an agreement and prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Failure to do so will make an already dangerous world even more dangerous for decades to come.
Jim Walsh is an expert in international security and a research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Security Studies Program. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.