On Resuming Nuclear Deal with Iran

After suffering the enormous shock of suddenly losing his 19-year-old daughter Orli, Steven Sheffey, TTN’s friend (pictured), has resumed writing his weekly newsletter, “Chicagoland Pro-Israel Political Update.” Words fail, but our hearts must go out to Steve and his family.  TTN includes the section he wrote on the likely agreement to resume a version of the nuclear agreement with Iran: 

The U.S. may soon reenter the Iran Nuclear Deal. Well-intentioned people will be on both sides of this debate, but to the extent we are concerned about preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, reentering the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is the best alternative.

However, we must be clear-eyed about what the JCPOA will and will not do. The question is not whether the JCPOA is better than a hypothetical perfect deal that would strip Iran of all nuclear capabilities, end all of its deleterious activities in the region, change its government, beat its swords into plowshares, and give every child in the world a pony. It isn’t. The question is whether the JCPOA is better than any realistic alternative and better than the status quo. It is.

That does not mean we ignore Iran’s other activities in the region, many of which–especially in Syria and Lebanon–pose a grave threat to Israel. We might hear differing estimates of how much sanctions relief Iran will receive and how much of that money will be used to fund anti-Israel activities, but some of the money will be used for that purpose. To the extent reentry into the deal does not address Iran’s other threats to Israel, and it will be to a large extent, it is essential that the administration develop plans to help Israel counter those threats. Taking the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran off the table for the foreseeable future will remove a key threat, and we are better off with an Iran engaged in deleterious activities without nuclear weapons than an Iran engaged in deleterious activities with nuclear weapons, but that does not absolve us of the responsibility to work with Israel to address those other activities outside the JCPOA.

Critics of the deal will rerun their 2015 playbook as if nothing has happened in the intervening seven years. But we have seen the world with the JCPOA and without the JCPOA, and what were hypotheticals in 2015 are history in 2022. With the JCPOA, Iran’s nuclear weapons program was effectively put on ice. Without the JCPOA, Iran has surged ahead, cutting its breakout time from one year to, at most, a few weeks, despite the tough, really tough, “maximum pressure” sanctions imposed by the Trump administration.

We can debate the effect Trump’s sanctions had on Iran’s economy (according to the World Bank, Iran’s economy grew 2.4% in 2020-21 and is forecasted to grow between 2-3% in 2021-22), but sanctions did not stop Iran from moving toward nuclear weapons capability. More sanctions are not the answer. In theory, at some point, sanctions might bring down Iran, but only if the rest of the world cooperates, and they will not cooperate if they perceive that the U.S.–having first withdrawn from the deal while Iran was in compliance–is now rejecting a reasonable return to the deal. Moreover, sanctions take time to work, and Iran is racing toward a bomb. Time is a luxury we don’t have.

Military action can set back Iran’s program, but only for a few years at most, and the result will all but ensure that Iran races toward a bomb for its own protection. If your concern is that the JCPOA will not last forever, why would you support military action, which will delay Iran’s program for fewer years than the JCPOA?

If your concern is that some provisions of the JCPOA sunset too soon (a false assumption), why would you prefer losing all of the protections of the JCPOA right now instead of in the future? Israel may have no choice but military action if it perceives that Iran is moving too close too fast–even a temporary setback is better than nothing–but a verifiable deal could obviate the need for such action and provide greater security to us and to Israel.

I get it. We crave certainty. We’d love to bring Iran to its knees with sanctions or drop so many bombs that they’d have no ability to ever acquire nuclear weapons. But that’s not reality. John Wolfsthal, writing for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (yeah, I know, science) explains that “there is no outcome negotiated or imposed that can prevent Iran from being a latent nuclear state. Even military invasion and occupation could not achieve that at this stage” but, says Wolfsthal, by any measure, returning to the JCPOA is better than the status quo even though Trump undermined some elements of the JCPOA’s safeguards.

The JCPOA imposes the toughest verification and inspections regime of any arms control agreement in history, including 24/7 access to all known sites and the right to inspect any site within 24 days, which is not enough time for Iran to hide any substantial violations (see Claim #10).

Cheating cannot be ruled out, but the chances of it going undetected are slim. Enforcing the JCPOA will require constant vigilance on our part, and that’s how it is designed. We are not talking trust but verify. We are talking distrust and verify.

The JCPOA is not magic, but it is our best chance to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and to ensure Israel’s safety and security, which is why the head of Israeli military intelligence said during a Security Cabinet meeting in January that Israel will be better off if the Iran nuclear talks lead to a deal rather than collapsing without one, a view shared by Israeli Defense Minister and former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz.

Still not convinced? Read this from Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) and this from me.

Click here to read this entire newsletter online; this issue includes Steven Sheffey’s thoughts on Ukraine, and there’s a link to help defray costs of publishing this free newsletter, if you so choose.
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