DAWID SKALKOWSKI, INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS DIRECTOR
The Alexander Hamilton Society at the George Washington University recently hosted a debate between Philip Gordon, of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Mark Dubowitz, Executive Director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Gordon has suggested that history shows it is unlikely for the United States and its partners to negotiate a better agreement than the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iranian leaders. Dubowitz argued that it is not only possible to acquire a better arms agreement, but that the United States and its partners must do so if they intend to ensure the stability of the region in the long-run.
This post will not examine details of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (more commonly referred to as the Iran Deal); Vox has an in-depth overview of the language within the agreement. Much of the discussion surrounding the agreement has pointed towards the same objective: removing the possibility for Iran to develop industrial-sized centrifuges that can enrich uranium to produce a bomb. Yet critics and proponents alike disregard a crucial component to the discussion: preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons compounds its desire to acquire them in the long-run.
Mark Dubowitz is correct to point out that the major flaw of the nuclear agreement rests in its ballistic missile restrictions being depleted over a fifteen year period, assuming Iran complies with all components of the agreement. To be sure, no agreement has the potential to prevent Iran from acquiring advanced centrifuges and building an arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles.
As Kenneth Waltz has contended, attempts to punish Iran for developing a nuclear program through economic and political sanctions further draw Iranian leaders to pursue the ultimate deterrent. Leaders have proven to the international system that Iran responds to sanctions and incentives like any other state would. Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew announced in April that Iran’s economy was fifteen to twenty percent smaller than it would have been had it remained on its pre-2012 growth trajectory.
Clearly, Tehran has taken notice. Critics of an armed Iran often look to discredit the regime by portraying its officials as irrational fanatics who would utilize a nuclear weapon against Israel. Yet, if Iranian leaders were willing to join international negotiations to remove sanctions on its economy—what is to suggest they would accept self-destruction through the promise of Israeli retaliation?
History is on the side of nuclear states that the international community wanted to disarm. North Korea frequently utilizes bellicose rhetoric towards other actors on the international stage, but has not employed use of its ballistic missile technology against another state. A nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union revealed that the promise of mutually assured destruction has served as the primary deterrent from states utilizing their nuclear programs.
If the United States and its partners find it in their interest to stabilize the region, the foremost consideration to be made is to recognize an Iranian withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Next, the United States and the international community should draw back its sanctions against Iran. As Daniel Drezner has indicated, sanctions against Iran have the potential to weigh heavily on Iran’s economy—they do not, however, have the ability to alter Iran’s willingness to concede on arming itself with a nuclear weapon. By some accounts, sanctions make Iranian leaders more likely to perceive an external threat, and provide them with an even greater incentive to pursue a nuclear program.
The United States, and its partners in the region, should take steps towards drafting treaties that prevent the targeting of nuclear facilities—an initiative that was successfully accomplished between India and Pakistan in 1991.
We will have to accept that Iran’s regime will eventually gain nuclear capabilities, and we need to turn the discussion surrounding Iran towards what a world like that will look like, and how the United States and its partners can prepare to accept that reality. In the question of whether or not states should have the potential to pursue nuclear weapons, the international community may attempt to delay the construction of nuclear programs, but ultimately cannot erase the desire for states to defend themselves on the international stage.
Whether or not allowing Iran to develop a nuclear program would make it a more responsible actor on the international stage is a topic for a different discussion. By providing Tehran the assurance it needs to secure itself against opposing powers in the region, the international community would be taking a step towards recognizing and fulfilling greater stability in the region. By gaining a nuclear program, Iran will be joining a community of other nations that have developed nuclear programs against opposition from the international community, and ultimately have been deterred from utilizing them.
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