Michael KreponWishful Thinking on Iran

Which camp – pro or con — is most guilty of wishful thinking about the Iran deal? Supporters who argue they have secured verifiable, significant reductions in Iran’s ability to make nuclear weapons? Or opponents who argue that a “better deal” can be negotiated after rejecting this one?

For opponents to avoid being guilty of wishful thinking, existing sanctions must remain in place after killing the deal, until a new administration tries to do better. Since the Obama Administration won’t be negotiating better terms, the current sanctions regime must hold as long as it takes for a new administration to resume negotiations. Also, the next American president must be able to convince all of Washington’s negotiating partners to support better provisions than those rejected by the Congress. Plus, “tougher” sanctions must remain in place on all of Iran’s significant trading partners for as many years as it takes Tehran to cry “uncle.” All of these hopeful assumptions rest on the next president’s ability, moral standing, and political backing — domestically and internationally — to negotiate a better deal.

Supporters argue that the deal doesn’t rely on trust; it relies on intrusive monitoring provisions, included at suspect sites, where timelines for access are short enough to prevent “break out” or “sneak out” from key limitations. Tehran may well abide by its obligations, which is at least as plausible a reason for accepting them as for its intention to violate them. But if Tehran accepted these provisions because it intends to cheat, President Obama and his successors will know about Iranian noncompliance in time to take remedial action – including military strikes, if needed. Sending U.S. pilots and other forces into harm’s way will, however, be a last resort. This option will remain in place after the terms of this deal lapse. As for Iran’s misbehavior in the region, the Obama Administration is taking many steps to shore up friends, especially Israel and the Gulf states, with military assistance. Subsequent administrations will do so, as well. Rather than engaging in wishful thinking, supporters of the deal make sound arguments that they have put in place prudent hedges against worst cases. Critics don’t argue with this hedging strategy; instead, they express doubt in presidential resolve.

Now let’s examine the underlying assumptions behind the push for a “better” deal. Will existing sanctions hold between the time this deal is torpedoed by the Congress and the advent of the next administration? Realistically speaking, sanctions will fray because the Congress will be in no position to hold the line against every other trading partner of Iran, all of whom support this deal. Will America’s negotiating partners agree on tougher constraints? All of them are telling the Congress that this is fantasy. Will the next U.S. president have the standing to negotiate better terms, the way that Ronald Reagan was able to secure deeper cuts in nuclear forces than the strategic arms limitations that Jimmy Carter negotiated?

Ronald Reagan got a better deal because he wanted deeper cuts, if not the total elimination of nuclear weapons in both the United States and the Soviet Union. In the Iran deal, the United States (and Israel) accept no nuclear constraints; all of the limitations are on Tehran. Besides, Ronald Reagan won’t win the next election. The next American president will have to operate in the same severely partisan circumstances as President Obama – except that he or she will have less standing because Republicans in Congress have sided with a hard-line government in Israel against every other state that supports this deal. An America that is diplomatically isolated will be in no position to negotiate a “better” deal.

Realistically speaking, the probability of sanctions eroding if Congress torpedoes this deal is greater than the prospect of tougher sanctions. Tehran has been willing to accept significant, long-term constraints on its enrichment program in return for the lifting of some sanctions. It won’t cry “uncle” as sanctions erode.

Sinking this deal is far more likely to result in no deal than a better deal. If Congress rejects this deal, if sanctions erode, and if Iran increases its enrichment capabilities – as opponents fully expect — an American president is left with basically two options. One option is to refrain from using military force. President Obama chose this option in Syria after Bashir al-Assad’s regime used Sarin against his own population. But President Obama secured the removal and demilitarization of nerve agents from Syria in return for not using force. An American president would not have the option of doing nothing if Iran blows by constraints that are not in force because the Congress has rejected this deal. Only the second option remains: to initiate another war in the Middle East to prevent another country from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Although backers of a “better” deal rarely say so, their fallback plan is the same as that of the deal’s supporters – the use of force. But there is a huge difference between making war against a country that violates the terms on an international agreement not to make nuclear weapons, and making war after rejecting an agreement could have avoided war in the first place. Nothing will weaken America’s standing in the world or exhaust its armed forces and treasury more than fighting a second, unnecessary war in the Middle East to prevent a state from acquiring nuclear weapons.

This deal provides an opportunity to prevent worst cases, while being prepared for them. Torpedoing this deal increases the odds of worst cases. This deal is not based on wishful thinking: it is based on close monitoring and international support, backed up by U.S. military power. Those who expect that a better deal will result from killing this one on Capitol Hill win the contest for wishful thinking.

Note to readers: A shorter version of this essay appeared in the September 3rd issue of Defense One.


  1. Derek Boothby (History)

    Well said. I wish the partisan naysayers would take their ostrich heads out of the ground.
    We haven’t met since UN days. I now live in Vermont and last evening had supper with Roger and Ellen Leeds. It’s still a small world.
    Warm regards,
    Derek Boothby

    • krepon (History)

      Great to hear from you.
      Roger and Ellen are the best.
      Best wishes,

  2. Scott Monje (History)

    “Only the second option remains: to initiate another war in the Middle East to prevent another country from acquiring nuclear weapons.”

    We generally make that assumption, but sometimes I wonder how true it really is. The Clinton administration actively considered attack plans to prevent North Korea from acquiring a nuclear weapon but then achieved the Agreed Framework. The Republicans–who won control of Congress in the same month, if I recall–denounced it as appeasement and prevented the US from carrying out some of its key obligations to North Korea. (Bad behavior from North Korea aided this, but it was rarely, if ever, tied to its obligations under the agreement.) The Bush administration denounced the deal, threatened the regime, and tried to change the terms of the agreement retroactively. Eventually, the North Koreans broke the deal, which virtually everyone took as evidence that they couldn’t be trusted to stick to an agreement in the first place. Yet, after all that, the Bush administration never attacked North Korea to prevent it from getting the bomb, and I dare say it wasn’t because they blamed themselves for the agreement falling apart. The Bush and Obama administrations just lived with it. Perhaps it would have gone otherwise if we hadn’t had two wars going already. Still, it makes me wonder how automatic a strike against Iranian facilities would be (regardless of the GOP’s evident intent to follow the path of the North Korean agreement in every detail).

    • krepon (History)

      Points well taken.
      The North Korean scenario may well be replayed as Republicans on Capitol Hill seek (repeatedly) to block implementation and reimpose economic sanctions supposed to be lifted under the agreement.

  3. Gene Kempton (History)

    While I understand the “pro” argument, I am bothered by 2 issues: (1) The plutonium problem. Iran seems to be free to conduct “research” in this area. It seems that sub-critical and hydronuclear experiments are possible under this deal. As North Korea has shown, you do not need much more. (2)The lack of unannounced inspectiontions, which every other country has agreed to, and the totally preposterous concept of letting Iran inspect itself using its own instruments with no US inspectors makes no sense whatsoever.

    • Scott Monje (History)

      I’m not sure what you mean by “which every other country has agreed to.” Uranium conversion and enrichment will be monitored 24/7. For 25 years, the uranium mines and mills will also be monitored. For challenge inspections of undeclared sites, they can delay for up to 24 days while arguing why the site shouldn’t be expected, but that is an explicit limit on stalling that no other nation has agreed to. The notion that they will inspect themselves is based on a document that relates only to Parchin and is probably either a forgery or an extremely early draft.



    • YankeeCynic (History)

      In reference to your first point, as I understand it sub-critical and hydronuclear testing should be covered under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, a document to which Iran is already party. There are no real applications for that kind of research that isn’t directed towards nuclear weapons development, and undertaking it would constitute potential military dimensions that would make Iran in material breach of Article II of the NPT.

    • Captain_Canuck (History)

      Why does the issue of plutonium bother you? The JCPOA cuts Iran’s pathway to plutonium (A rebuilt Arak will no longer produce it).

      The second issue you cite mis-characterizes the IAEA’s agreement with Iran regarding PMD (“Iran inspect itself”), and mis-characterizes the safeguards agreements in place with other nations (“every other country has agreed to”).

      The AP, at best, misunderstood an early draft. Iran does not get to “self-inspect”.

      I cannot think of *any* country that has agreed to allow unannounced inspections of military facilities.

  4. Kevin Mc Cusker (History)

    While you are correct on the naysayers you misrepresent the supporters. There are hedges against Iran breaking out, but it is the same wishful thinking to conclude we actually have a credible military threat, especially under this administration. The same arguments against taking military action being used now will be used then. Iran isn’t going to break out and violate the agreement all at once, they are going to do it bit by bit, eroding the integrity and spirit of the agreement wherever they can. The argument will turn into “Should we really conduct another unnecessary war in the Middle East for just a few % more enriched Uranium or a couple hundred centrifuges?”

    Not to mention we don’t know what the state of Iran’s military is going to be in 15 years. Look at what has become of the PLA(N) under Russian sponsorship in the last 15 years. It is doubtful Iran can come as far in a similar amount of time, but it will more than likely be leaps and bounds ahead of where it is now. This increases the risk to our pilots, thereby strengthening the argument for not going to war over a nuclear program.

    Furthermore, the whole premise of this agreement is based on the bet that Iran will turn into a responsible international actor in the next 15 years, after which they can have all the HEU and space launch vehicles (ICBMs) they want. I think it requires an even higher degree of wishful thinking when it comes to betting the farm on Iran becoming responsible in the next fifteen years. Hey, it might happen, but there is far too much risk assumed for me to take that bet.

    In the end both sides endeavor down the path of wishful thinking, but one side deals us a losing hand in the long term (the JCPOA) and the other is an unknown. I guess, personally, I would rather take the unknown than the losing hand. The unknown could be worse, but it also could be better.

  5. RichardM (History)

    The problem with this reasoning is that it assumes it was necessary for the US and/or the West to make a deal with Iran. That is simply untrue. We would have been far safer to keep the status as it was indefinitely than to accept the deal with Mr. Obama accepted.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      The situation as it stood was stable only WRT the major powers and Iran; if you include Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, and Israel, it was showing signs of coming off the rails in a nasty way.

      A US initiated war is only one of the ways we could have failed earlier. Failing to convince the Kingdom and Israel not to blast Natanz and Fordow and all the reactors would have been another.

    • FlamesInTheDesert (History)

      The problem with that theory is that the status quo was not static,iran had an active and expanding program and the longer the west waited to make a deal the worse the terms of it would be or do you think you would get a better deal when iran had all 20,000 centrifuges at fordow up and running or when arak was finally commissioned?,dont forget at one point there way back during the first round of “negotiations” iran had been willing to accept a few hundred centrifuges in a couple of pilot cascades,it was the west with its mantra of zero enrichment,not one centrifuge that rejected that,iran has gone from a few hundred centrifuges to several thousand centrifuges and that was all thanks to the west sitting back and hoping that sanctions will force iran to cry uncle and I think we can all agree that has been a failure,doubling down on failure doesnt really seem like a very smart strategy to me.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      The status quo was not going to stand still indefinitely. Either Iran was going to continue progressing towards bomb-making (or being only a screw turn away) or Iran was going to show restraint in exchange for sanctions relief.

      If one looks retrospectively, one can perhaps argue that Obama/Kerry should have held out for a better deal. This foregone option, however, requires risking the possibility that the Iranian side might have rejected a deal that was even better for the rest of the world. Therefore, it is not known (and probably not knowable) that a better deal would have been possible.

      The current reality is that one can either take this deal or leave it. There is no longer any third choice to hold out for a better deal. Accepting this deal now is better than the option of rejecting the deal, and better than the current status quo. The deal is also quite good in its own right, because it forecloses all the pathways for making a bomb.

    • Scott Monje (History)

      Regarding the stability of the status quo, we should also keep in mind that the Europeans, Russians, and Chinese agreed to multilateral sanctions as a way to get an agreement from Iran, not necessarily as a permanent condition. If we refuse a deal, the whole thing could fall apart, or the other powers could negotiate their own deal without our input.

  6. manoj (History)

    I think you have nailed all the arguments in a masterly way. Michael. At some point Indian and Iranian strategy was the same– have the capacity, but not necessarily the capability. But pressures, internal as external changed things. We can hope that the pressures around Iran, which are considerable, don’t lead to a similar outcome.

  7. Bradley Laing (History)


    “…by Sarah Bostock and Michael Sandelson .

    The deal rubber stamping is scheduled to take place during a meeting at a General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna.
    Norwegian Foreign Minister Børge Brende called the signing “an important milestone in the nuclear safety and emergency response cooperation between our countries.”
    “The new procedures we are now establishing with Russia will ensure early notification in the event of a nuclear incident, which is crucial for Norway’s emergency preparedness,” he added.
    Environmental organisation Bellona comments that hazards include nuclear powered navigation beacons and lighthouses along Arctic coastlines.
    Some 200 rusted out Russia Northern Fleet nuclear submarines, leaky spent nuclear fuel, and radioactive waste storage facilities are also considered as being dangers…”

  8. Bradley Laing (History)


    How close were the Nazis to a nuclear weapon of their own?

    The answer is they weren’t very close at all. According to an investigation published this month in the journal Angewandte Chemie, 1940s uranium samples from Germany don’t show evidence of a self-sustained nuclear chain reaction— the chemical underpinnings of an atomic bomb. The study adds scientific support to historical accounts that the Germans didn’t succeed in their wartime nuclear aspirations. An international team carried out the investigation, led by Maria Wallenius, a radiochemist who coordinates nuclear forensics analysis at the Institute for Transuranium Elements, part of the European Commission’s in-house science service.

  9. Bradley Laing (History)


    “September 18, 2015
    By John Keller

    ROME, N.Y., 18 Sept. 2015. U.S. Air Force researchers are asking industry for new ways to safeguard military communications amid the blast, radiation, and electromagnetic pulse (EMP) caused by detonation of nuclear weapons.
    Officials of the Air Force Research Laboratory Information Directorate in Rome, N.Y., issued a request for information (RFI-RIK-15-04) this week for the Nuclear Communications for Aerial Systems and Technologies (NCAST) project.”