Remaining Obstacles to the Iran Nuclear Agreement

The Obama administration is hailing the framework agreement regarding Iran’s nuclear program as a great diplomatic triumph. It is clear, however, that several significant obstacles remain—any one of which could fatally undermine that achievement. The most obvious threat is the unrelenting hostility to the accord by hawks in the United States. The ink was barely dry when William Kristol, editor of the flagship neoconservative magazine The Weekly Standard, published an editorial openly urging Congress to kill the agreement. Outspoken congressional hawks, including Senator Tom Cotton and Senator Lindsey Graham, have made it clear that this is their objective as well. Given GOP control of both houses of Congress, such opposition is more than a minor worry.

But there are other sources of potential trouble. Just days after Kristol’s screed, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, insisted that all economic sanctions against his country must be lifted once the final version of the nuclear accord is signed. Yet even the Obama administration has adopted the position that sanctions will be lifted only in stages as Tehran fulfills its commitments. Clearly, that dispute could unravel the entire accord.

Disagreement about the timing and extent of terminating sanctions reflects the continuing lack of trust between Tehran and Washington. Although most Americans would argue that Iran is the untrustworthy party, I point out in a recent article in Real Clear Defense, that there is also reason to doubt Washington’s willingness to abide by its commitments. The U.S. track record is not especially reassuring. During the latter stages of the Cold War, for example, the United States proposed a procedure of “cross recognition” regarding North and South Korea. In other words, if Moscow and Beijing established diplomatic ties with Seoul, Washington would recognize the government in Pyongyang. China and Russia have since done so—and now enjoy a wide range of diplomatic and economic relations with South Korea. But the United States has yet to normalize relations with North Korea.

From Iran’s standpoint, an even more worrisome precedent is the action that the United States and its NATO allies took with regard to Muammar Gaddafi’s government in Libya. Gaddafi abandoned his nuclear program in exchange for promised diplomatic and economic concessions. Within a few brief years, those nations turned on Gaddafi, openly funding and arming an insurgency to overthrow his regime. That campaign culminated with NATO (primarily U.S.) cruise missile strikes to support the successful rebel offensive.

The Libya episode hardly creates an incentive for Iran, North Korea, and other potential nuclear-weapons states to forgo such ambitions. Indeed, it likely reinforces the opposite incentive. The pertinent lesson seemed to be that only a very foolish government would give up the nuclear option in exchange for the mere promise of normalized relations with the West.

The challenge for the Obama administration is to demonstrate to Iran that it can and will deliver on the U.S. commitment to lift sanctions, if Tehran fulfills its obligations under the new nuclear agreement.  Given the extent of the opposition in Congress, though, it is uncertain whether the administration can prevail, even if it is serious about keeping the U.S. side of the bargain.  Celebration in response to reaching the framework accord is decidedly premature.  We are still a long way from the implementation of an effective settlement to this dangerous feud.