The Iran Deal: A Few Issues

The Iran Deal fueled an intense debate in the U.S. But whatever side you found yourself on (either “for” or “against”), the recent official ratification of the deal by all parties signified the termination of the original debate. Therefore, it is important to now focus on the future ramifications of the deal. To that end, this post seeks to highlight four core issues of the deal and the possible consequences they could bring about.

The first issue stems from the sanctions relief. According to “Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew…[Iran will conservatively receive] roughly $56 billion” (Rick Gladstone). The primary worry, which even President Obama acknowledges, is that the sanctions relief “will mean more money for terror groups” (Raf Sanchez) like “Hezbollah of Lebanon and Hamas of Gaza, regarded by the United States…as terrorist groups” (Rick Gladstone). Thus, the money Iran receives through this deal can (and probably will) exacerbate other problems in the region, not to mention the unsettling fact that the United States and the other members of the P5+1 will knowingly fund, in the words of the U.S. Department of State, a “State Sponso[r] of Terrorism” (U.S. Department of State).

The second issue with the deal is intelligence. As the Harvard Kennedy School’s The Iran Nuclear Deal: A Definitive Guide, states, “Intelligence is the key” (37). Without it, the deal unravels. So the question remains: Will the intelligence community of the P5+1 be able to effectively track Iran’s behavior and activity? Unfortunately, their track record isn’t reassuring. For instance, it wasn’t until “the Mujahedeen-e Khalq (the People’s Holy Warriors), a Marxist-Islamist Iranian dissident group now known as the National Council of Resistance, revealed the existence of the uranium-enrichment site at Natanz and the heavy-water reactor at Arak” (Reuel Marc Gerecht) did the United States or any other country have any idea they existed. So if Iranians lied before and did such a good job at it (or really, the international community did such a poor job at tracking the activity), what is stopping them from doing it again?

What should be stopping them is the willpower of international community, which stands as the third key issue. The Harvard Kennedy School’s The Iran Nuclear Deal: A Definitive Guide confirms that “[t]he JCPOA and Resolution 2231 establish a process for UN sanctions to automatically snap back in the event of a substantial violation” (62). The first flaw in this is noted a page later: “Whether or not the U.S. and EU would be able to once again capture and sustain broad-level support for cutting back Iranian energy imports is unclear” (63). This is especially “unclear” (63) now that “Russia…reach[ed] an understanding…with Iraq, Syria and Iran to share intelligence about the Islamic State” (Michael R. Gordon). This shows that moving forward, the interests of each country will change and could include the protection of the Iranian regime, thus diminishing the chances that the international community will be able to combat Iranian violations. However, many could still argue that in the case of Iran’s nuclear capabilities, these nations can put aside their differences. Recently, the international community had an opportunity to do just that, but unfortunately showcased its weak will: “On Sunday [Oct. 11, about two weeks ago] the [Iranian] regime tested a new long-range, guided ballistic missile code-named Emad (‘Pillar’) in violation of the nuclear deal. United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231…prohibits Iran from conducting ballistic-missile work for eight years” (Editorial Board of The Wall Street Journal). To date, no snap-back sanctions have been installed. This reality certainly calls into question the reliability of the international community and their desire to enforce the deal. It will be very interesting to see the state of the world in 15 years.

Last, the most profound issue of the deal: Can it change the Iranian regime’s behavior? One can hope. But so far, no change has manifested. Not only did the Iranians, as mentioned earlier, just test an inter-continental ballistic missile (N.B. “such missiles have never been built to carry conventional warheads” (Reuel Marc Gerecht)), but their rhetoric has only intensified. For instance, the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei posted on his Twitter page on Sept. 9, 2015 (a month and a half ago) this message: “Firstly, you [the Israelis] will not see next [sic] 25 years; God willing, there will be nothing as [sic] Zionist Regime by [sic] next 25 years. Secondly, until then, struggling, heroic and jihadi morale will leave no moment of serenity for Zionists” (Ayatollah Khamenei). Not only is this message is horrible and deeply troubling, but it also eerily speaks to what could happen beyond 15 years. And remember, after 15 years, the deal holds no more weight. — Michael

11 thoughts on “The Iran Deal: A Few Issues

  1. Hey Michael I think you bring up very relevant issues facing the Iran deal. I appreciate that we are moving past the debate of whether or not we should have the deal in the first place now that it is complete.

    Based on my understanding of Belfer Center reading and the Gladstone article it seems that we will not have the capability to reinforce Iranian sanctions. In addition to the changing geopolitical objectives of different countries with Iran like Russia, the UAE stands to gain $15 billion from lifting Iranian sanctions ( and with the US election season just around then corner, there is no way that the US will be able to achieve the political wherewithal to “snap back (sanctions) in the event of a substantial violation” (Belfer Center 62). It would be interesting to learn to what extent Iran understands/believes this.

    In any case, given that sanctions will be unlikely to be reimplemented, I think it is most important to turn to Iranian behavior. I’d like to focus on Iranian youth and their capability to influence the regimes behavior – I think the current regime does not show signs of changing. However reentry into the international community might change their minds somewhat.

    More than half of Iran’s 75 million people are under 35. To quote a WSJ article from July 7th, 2015, “Many are weary of overweening religious edicts, economic mismanagement and isolation brought by a decade of international sanctions.” Just like many of the apathetic and non religious young Israeli’s living in Tel Aviv, Iranian youth have no desire to be involved in political or religious conflict – they want economic success and freedom of expression. Recently Iranians have begun mixed gender education, conducting fashion shows and shopping online. Will sanctions relief, and greater connectivity that comes with it lead to the Iranian youth changing our perception on Iran? Will this happen before they actually get a bomb (assuming that is 10-15 years away due to the deal, though it could be much less)?

  2. Thank you Michael for starting this thread, the four issues that you bring up are precisely what makes the Iranian Deal so difficult to make a clear judgment for. Given its adoption and passage it makes little sense, as you allude to, to focus on whether the P5+1 should have signed and ratified it. From my reading of your post, it appears that you are apprehensive at best of the future ramifications of the JCPOA. As Max aptly pointed out understanding the social, economic and political dynamics of Iran’s population, and more specifically, its youth will ultimately dictate whether the JCPOA holds up and is ultimately successful.

    While Iran has used some of its resources to fund both Hamas and Hezbollah, it has also used its until now, limited funds, to support the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Security Forces against ISIL, a common enemy. This deal hopefully is the start of a beginning in a series of constructive dialogues where the United States and other nations can begin to work with Iran on areas of common interest while negotiating and countering their aggression in arenas where Iran is supporting “terror groups”. It will also be crucial to analyze whether the sanctions relief Iran receives will go towards economic development and stimulus (i.e. education, infrastructure etc.) or towards military spending. I anticipate it will be a combination of both, although should the Youth and the literate masses of Iran emerge as a powerful stakeholder in the Iranian political sphere, I expect the balance to tilt to the former.

    As you mentioned, it wasn’t until the Iranian dissident group, the National Council of Resistance did the existence of the uranium-enrichment site at Natanz and the heavy-water reactor at Arak come to be known. That is precisely why the youth and an active civil society are so important. Having an active, intellectual vibrant society serves as an additional valuable check for the international community against any abuse of power at the top. Having a vigorous and active dissident community can also implore the international community to take action – stalwarts like Malala Yousfzai, Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela come to mind. Should Iran open up to the international community, which the JCPOA is destined to do, it is likely similar advocates will emerge on the global stage.

    Finally, change takes time. Given the sanctions, there will be initially be a lot of trepidation and mistrust on both sides. If one tries to see it as a glassful scenario, moderates like Rouhani and Zarif have gained significant prestige in their home country and offer a pathway for Khamenei to save face. Remember, he is one of the original propagators of the Revolution, and many young Iranians do not remember or have moved far beyond the “Death to America & Death to Israel” incendiary and harmful rhetoric, reminiscent of the late 70s in Iran.

    However, all of these assertions are predicated on your very accurate statement – it is all dependent on the state of the world in 15 years. Like you, I’m hesitant about the outcome but am mildly optimistic that the youth, like Max alluded to, hold the key to the success of the JCPOA.

  3. I’d like to focus on your last point: “Last, the most profound issue of the deal: Can it change the Iranian regime’s behavior?”

    When was that ever a goal of the nuclear deal?

    I share your pessimism about a grand Iranian Opening or Iranian Pivot or whatever. As much as I’d like it to happen, I don’t think it will. But I think we can reach a modus vivendi with Iran– a normal less-than-friendly relationship. Maybe less “Death to America” and more “Non-fatal Injury to America.”

    As the Harvard Kennedy School’s Iran Deal guide opens, “The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is intended to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.” It is NOT intended to bring about regime change, to bring about changes in Iranian rhetoric, or to affect Iran’s relationship with Hezbollah, Assad’s regime, or Israel.

    Absent this deal, what is our alternative Iran policy?

    Do we continue cyberattacks like Stuxnet, which may have delayed the Iranian program by at most a year or two? Do we allow Israel to strike at Iranian nuclear facilities, ensuring that Iran does in fact feel the need for a nuclear weapons program? Do we continue with sanctions even as Russia, China, and the EU are ready to end their sanctions against Iran?

    The JCPOA allows the US to kick the can down the road another ten or fifteen years. Maybe we’ll have a more workable relationship with Iran at that point. I seriously doubt we’ll have a *worse* relationship at that point.

  4. Michael, while I agree that the most important thing for us to do now in the aftermath of the Iran Nuclear Deal is to consider the future ramifications of the deal, I am not sure I agree with your first point about sanctions. The deal doesn’t involve the US giving any money to Iran so I am not sure why you are so concerned that the US “will knowingly fund” some of Iran’s more questionable activities. The nuclear deal simply involves a repeal of some of the sanctions that were placed on Iran specifically for the purpose of dissuading Iran from developing nuclear weapons. We are not paying Iran in any way and we are keeping in place the sanctions on Iran for other reasons, such as the sanctions for supporting groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas.

    The sanctions relief in the nuclear deal simply involves rolling back some of the crippling sanctions that have prevented Iran from functioning as a normal state. How is having the same relations with Iran as we have with other countries necessarily translate to us funding terrorist groups? In addition, how else would we propose to incentivize nonproliferation for Iran? The government realized that in this one case sanctions worked — which is unusual in and of itself — and since these sanctions were connected to the one issue of nuclear proliferation, it was right to end them since Iran has agreed to a nuclear agreement.

  5. In line with Tucker’s perspective on the feasibility of changing Iranian regime’s behavior, I am pessimistic that the financial benefits from lifting the sanctions will greatly impact the under-35 population. As noted in the original prompt, there is skepticism over how the money from the sanctions will be used, or whether much of it will even address social issues. I strongly agree with this; there is a very real concern that the release of the sanctions, which is to come soon, will fund terrorist actions. Furthermore, there is probably a high likelihood that the deal will unravel in closer to 5 years rather than 15 years. This is based on Iran’s track record, recent actions such as the anti-ballistic mission training test (after the deal), and their ability to monitor their own military bases (without any access or supervision). Since Iran will soon receive the financial benefit of the Deal, what will actually be key factors to their willingness to comply (especially after a track record of non-compliance)? Therefore, the argument of waiting for the benefits and influence of the under 35 population in the long term is unrealistic if these short-term negative consequences occur.

  6. Michael, thank you for the well-researched post and the thoughtful discussion is has spawned. I would like to respond to your concerns regarding the intelligence community’s (IC) ability (or inability) to detect covert activity, especially since you rightly point out that “intelligence is the key” to a successful deal (The Iran Nuclear Deal: A Definitive Guide, 37).

    First, I wanted to push back against the poor track record you brought up in the original post. You write that the National Council of Resistance (NCRI) discovered the existence of Natanz and Arak, but numerous other reports indicate that the intelligence community and the IAEA already knew about the existence of Natanz before the NCRI “alerted” the international community (see the March 3, 2015 Foreign Policy article titled “That Secret Iranian ‘Nuclear Facility’ You Just Found? Not So Much.”). In fact, according to the Belfer Center report, the IC successfully detected Natantz and Fordow before the installation of the first centrifuges were installed, even before the Deal’s imposition of expanded inspections or constraints (38).

    Second, with respect to the expanded inspections and constraints noted above, I think it is important that we do not discount the benefits that the new deal confers on the IC’s ability to gather clandestine intelligence. While it is true that gathering intelligence is difficult, under the JCPOA, “inspections and intelligence would work in tandem” (The Iran Nuclear Deal, 38). The Belfer report argues that IAEA inspections will strengthen collection and assessment by the IC, and intelligence will help guide IAEA inspections. Of course, our confidence will always be higher for verification at declared facilities, but the Deal at least puts the IC in a better position than it had been in previously.

    With or without the deal, the IC plays an important role in discovering clandestine Iranian activity that could lead to the development of nuclear weapons. In my opinion, at least the Deal provides the IC with an even better chance of succeeding in that regard.

  7. Thanks for starting this interesting thread, Michael! I want to continue Max and Paarth’s discussion on the youth generation and dissident community as means of scrutinizing the Iranian regime.

    There have been outspoken dissidents, like Shiva Nazar Ahari or the Chain Murder victims, but in this age we must also think of citizen journalists, the unsung heroes of a 21st-century rebellion. Just as ISIL and other terrorist groups have become adept at recruitment and fear campaigns through social media and online forums, rebels (to ISIL and the Iranian regime) have become more adept at collecting and transmitting media to the international journalism community. This has not always been easy, particularly within Iran — the government has been known to block websites, narrow bandwidth (so that videos cannot be uploaded and text messages cannot be sent), and even shut down Internet and mobile phone communications during particularly heated occasions. Like Max and Paarth, I am optimistic about the younger generation’s capacity for political reform, as they are more apathetic to Iran’s religious restrictions and growingly frustrated with the state of personal liberties. But I am also skeptical of their propensity for engaging with the international community under conditions of censorship.

    As the younger generation becomes increasingly internationalized and keen for personal freedoms, they will seek the economic and social benefits of an open and free society. I hope that they can follow the example of citizen journalists to expose instances of cheating — in the JCPOA and other agreements — and keep the current regime in check.

  8. I think you bring up a great point about the information side of the Iran deal. As you state, it is very hard to know with any high degree of certainty whether certain facilities are operational or if they exist at all. It is interesting to consider the possibility that these diplomats and legislators must take into account regarding not finding certain structures. For example, would they think in a worst case scenario type of way, where they accept that there is an 80 percent chance that a new facility would be discovered, or do they assume that all facilities will be found, but that it may take many months for them to be found, and instead have approximations for just how long they will take to be found.

    It is without a doubt the case that the decisions that must be made are knowingly made without perfect conditions, and that a degree of uncertainty will always accompany these sort of things. However, I cannot imagine the pressure that must be felt by those having to say whether or not a new facility has been built, and at what degree of certainty they will stand behind their findings. Interesting stuff to think about.

  9. As Mike has pointed out, the coercive force of the Iran deal is inextricably linked to the collective willpower of the international community. If the world gets distracted, Iran will have little trouble getting a bomb; and as we all know, the world is very easily distracted. Now that the deal has gone into effect, as Mike argues, it is our job merely not to give in to that distraction. Truly, though, this is only the surface level of the issue. The real truth is that if Iran decides that having a bomb is more in its national interest than international goodwill, it will have a bomb in well under fifteen years.

    Paarth and Max voice very real notes of hope for the Iranian people: with the lifting of sanctions, the young population of Iran may have the chance to effect a positive change on their repressive political environment. However, it is important to note a few things about this position. First of all, this deal is to run for fifteen years at the outside. Should Iran decide to break it, it may be much shorter than that. This means that any change to existing Iranian nuclear policy would have to happen very quickly for this argument to truly have merit – it is unlikely that with the lifting of sanctions, the under-35’s of Iran will suddenly find themselves enfranchised and that Iran will approach ever closer to an ideal Western democracy. Some of that change may come in a decade and some may never appear, but counting on the rapid gains of an underrepresented community seems to me to be nothing more than a hopeful fancy. In addition, the Iranian establishment has always relied upon vilifying and alienating the USA and Israel. Should they feel their position threatened by new openness, what is to stop them from solidifying their power once again by reverting to saber-rattling and nuclear proliferation. Without strong international resolve to revert to sanctions, this possibility almost approaches certainty.

    Iran’s going to have a bomb if it wants one. The lifting of sanctions has apparently been enough to get the Iranian government to at least pay lip service to the idea of stopping their program for the next decade. If I was in charge over there, though, I would be expressing serious doubts about the attention span of the rest of the world. Once sanctions have been gone for a few years, it will become harder and harder to reinstate them, and the second I judged the moment right, I would be right back on the trail for a bomb.

  10. Thanks for your post, Michael! You raise a couple of points that I thought were particularly interesting.

    You talked about the “snap-back sanctions” in section 8 of the Kennedy School’s Definitive Guide on the Iran Nuclear Deal. I think that your point about the ‘willpower’ of the international community in actually moving forward with snapback sanctions in the event of a violation on the part of Iran was important. As we have now seen (since the discovery of the ballistic missiles testing), the snap-back sanctions may not be imposed quickly or lightly. How significant of a violation will it take for the international community to support the re-application of energy and financial sanctions? Especially as the interests of countries change and they become more or less aligned with the notion of sanctions against Iran, how can we ensure that this is a measure that the international community will have the boldness and resolution to implement if necessary? While I do not believe that Iran will commit any violations blatant enough to provoke the snap-back sanctions, I do believe that the ballistic missiles testing will not be the end of Iran’s pushing the limits of the deal.

    This brings me to the next point I wanted to discuss, which is the effectiveness of our intelligence about Iran’s covert operations. The Kennedy School’s report acknowledges that while it is likely that we will have the capacity to quickly detect production of HEU or plutonium, it will be much harder to detect “incremental Iranian cheating,” such as nuclear weapons and advanced centrifuge research, which would accelerate the breakout process after the terms of the deal expire in 10-15 years (p. 7). As far as I can tell, there will be no foolproof way to detect covert activity of this sort. While this is troublesome, I also have to say that I’m not sure any measure under any realistic circumstance would be able to completely prevent this kind of activity, and it’s therefore better to have something (the current deal) than nothing.

  11. I agree, to a great extent, with Tucker’s assessment of the Iran Deal and the issues that it highlights in US- Iranian relations. I think your point about reaching a modus-vivendi with Iran is very much on point- as that is often as much as anyone can hope for in international relations. Your question is also an important one: If not this agreement with Iran, what is the alternative? It seems like criticism of the deal in popular discourse is based in little more than criticism and distrust of Iran itself – of the anti-Americanism of its leaders like Khameini. However, these negative attitudes are often the result of “game theory” like issues in foreign affairs; states like the US and Iran do not trust each other because they have conflicting interests. Because we do not trust each other, we face a security dilemma – we would like to arm ourselves just to feel safe. But this, in turn, makes my opponent feel less secure. This basic idea in IR theory can be extrapolated to shed some light on why, according to Khameini, the US is the “Great Satan” – there is a great degree of fear between our states, and we have been punishing them economically (with sanctions) for a prolonged period of time. However, I would agree with those who’ve argued that we have reason to give the Iran Deal a chance and even harbor some optimism for future relations with Iran. After all, changing and “modernizing” attitudes among Iranian youth makes headlines almost weekly – young people in Iran, especially women, are incrementally becoming more “daring” in fashion and their degrees of adherence to norms of covering their bodies. This signals a certain want for change and, from our US perspective, liberation. Furthermore, Khameini may be the Ayatollah – but he is not the only influential political voice in Iran – even Rouhani may be considered more moderate, and supporters of Rouhani have already voice the idea that, without the pre-Iran Deal sanctions, the US cannot remain the “Great Satan” – and might already deserve to be called the “Lesser Satan” instead.

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