By Henry Kissinger
and George P. Shultz
April 7, 2015
The announced framework for an agreement on
Iran’s nuclear program has the potential to generate a seminal national
debate. Advocates exult over the nuclear constraints it would impose on Iran.
Critics question the verifiability of these constraints and their longer-term
impact on regional and world stability. The historic significance of the
agreement and indeed its sustainability depend on whether these emotions, valid
by themselves, can be reconciled.
Debate regarding technical details of the deal
has thus far inhibited the soul-searching necessary regarding its deeper
implications. For 20 years, three presidents of both major parties proclaimed
that an Iranian nuclear weapon was contrary to American and global
interests—and that they were prepared to use force to prevent it. Yet
negotiations that began 12 years ago as an international effort to prevent an
Iranian capability to develop a nuclear arsenal are ending with an agreement
that concedes this very capability, albeit short of its full capacity in the
first 10 years.
Editorial Page Editor Paul Gigot on President
Obama’s preference to cut Congress out of the Iran nuclear deal, and the
implications for future Congresses. Photo credit: Getty Images.
Mixing shrewd diplomacy with open defiance of
U.N. resolutions, Iran has gradually turned the negotiation on its head.
Iran’s centrifuges have multiplied from about 100 at the beginning of the
negotiation to almost 20,000 today. The threat of war now constrains the West
more than Iran. While Iran treated the mere fact of its willingness to negotiate
as a concession, the West has felt compelled to break every deadlock with a new
proposal. In the process, the Iranian program has reached a point officially
described as being within two to three months of building a nuclear weapon.
Under the proposed agreement, for 10 years Iran will never be further than one
year from a nuclear weapon and, after a decade, will be significantly closer.
The president deserves respect for the
commitment with which he has pursued the objective of reducing nuclear peril, as
does Secretary of State John
Kerry for the persistence, patience and ingenuity with which he has striven
to impose significant constraints on Iran’s nuclear program.
Progress has been made on shrinking the size
of Iran’s enriched stockpile, confining the enrichment of uranium to one
facility, and limiting aspects of the enrichment process. Still, the ultimate
significance of the framework will depend on its verifiability and
Negotiating the final agreement will be
extremely challenging. For one thing, no official text has yet been published.
The so-called framework represents a unilateral American interpretation. Some of
its clauses have been dismissed by the principal Iranian negotiator as
“spin.” A joint EU-Iran statement differs in important respects, especially
with regard to the lifting of sanctions and permitted research and development.
Comparable ambiguities apply to the one-year
window for a presumed Iranian breakout. Emerging at a relatively late stage in
the negotiation, this concept replaced the previous baseline—that Iran might
be permitted a technical capacity compatible with a plausible civilian nuclear
program. The new approach complicates verification and makes it more political
because of the vagueness of the criteria.
Under the new approach, Iran permanently gives
up none of its equipment, facilities or fissile product to achieve the proposed
constraints. It only places them under temporary restriction and
safeguard—amounting in many cases to a seal at the door of a depot or periodic
visits by inspectors to declared sites. The physical magnitude of the effort is
daunting. Is the International Atomic Energy Agency technically, and in terms of
human resources, up to so complex and vast an assignment?
In a large country with multiple facilities
and ample experience in nuclear concealment, violations will be inherently
difficult to detect. Devising theoretical models of inspection is one thing.
Enforcing compliance, week after week, despite competing international crises
and domestic distractions, is another. Any report of a violation is likely to
prompt debate over its significance—or even calls for new talks with Tehran to
explore the issue. The experience of Iran’s work on a heavy-water reactor
during the “interim agreement” period—when suspect activity was identified
but played down in the interest of a positive negotiating atmosphere—is not
Compounding the difficulty is the unlikelihood
that breakout will be a clear-cut event. More likely it will occur, if it does,
via the gradual accumulation of ambiguous evasions.
When inevitable disagreements arise over the
scope and intrusiveness of inspections, on what criteria are we prepared to
insist and up to what point? If evidence is imperfect, who bears the burden of
proof? What process will be followed to resolve the matter swiftly?
The agreement’s primary enforcement
mechanism, the threat of renewed sanctions, emphasizes a broad-based asymmetry,
which provides Iran permanent relief from sanctions in exchange for temporary
restraints on Iranian conduct. Undertaking the “snap-back” of sanctions is
unlikely to be as clear or as automatic as the phrase implies. Iran is in a
position to violate the agreement by executive decision. Restoring the most
effective sanctions will require coordinated international action. In countries
that had reluctantly joined in previous rounds, the demands of public and
commercial opinion will militate against automatic or even prompt
“snap-back.” If the follow-on process does not unambiguously define the
term, an attempt to reimpose sanctions risks primarily isolating America, not
The gradual expiration of the framework
agreement, beginning in a decade, will enable Iran to become a significant
nuclear, industrial and military power after that time—in the scope and
sophistication of its nuclear program and its latent capacity to weaponize at a
time of its choosing. Limits on Iran’s research and development have not been
publicly disclosed (or perhaps agreed). Therefore Iran will be in a position to
bolster its advanced nuclear technology during the period of the agreement and
rapidly deploy more advanced centrifuges—of at least five times the capacity
of the current model—after the agreement expires or is broken.
The follow-on negotiations must carefully
address a number of key issues, including the mechanism for reducing Iran’s
stockpile of enriched uranium from 10,000 to 300 kilograms, the scale of uranium
enrichment after 10 years, and the IAEA’s concerns regarding previous Iranian
weapons efforts. The ability to resolve these and similar issues should
determine the decision over whether or when the U.S. might still walk away from
Even when these issues are resolved, another
set of problems emerges because the negotiating process has created its own
realities. The interim agreement accepted Iranian enrichment; the new agreement
makes it an integral part of the architecture. For the U.S., a decade-long
restriction on Iran’s nuclear capacity is a possibly hopeful interlude. For
Iran’s neighbors—who perceive their imperatives in terms of millennial
rivalries—it is a dangerous prelude to an even more dangerous permanent fact
of life. Some of the chief actors in the Middle East are likely to view the U.S.
as willing to concede a nuclear military capability to the country they consider
their principal threat. Several will insist on at least an equivalent
capability. Saudi Arabia has signaled that it will enter the lists; others are
likely to follow. In that sense, the implications of the negotiation are
If the Middle East is “proliferated” and
becomes host to a plethora of nuclear-threshold states, several in mortal
rivalry with each other, on what concept of nuclear deterrence or strategic
stability will international security be based? Traditional theories of
deterrence assumed a series of bilateral equations. Do we now envision an
interlocking series of rivalries, with each new nuclear program counterbalancing
others in the region?
Previous thinking on nuclear strategy also
assumed the existence of stable state actors. Among the original nuclear powers,
geographic distances and the relatively large size of programs combined with
moral revulsion to make surprise attack all but inconceivable. How will these
doctrines translate into a region where sponsorship of nonstate proxies is
common, the state structure is under assault, and death on behalf of jihad is a
kind of fulfillment?
Some have suggested the U.S. can dissuade
Iran’s neighbors from developing individual deterrent capacities by extending
an American nuclear umbrella to them. But how will these guarantees be defined?
What factors will govern their implementation? Are the guarantees extended
against the use of nuclear weapons—or against any military attack,
conventional or nuclear? Is it the domination by Iran that we oppose or the
method for achieving it? What if nuclear weapons are employed as psychological
blackmail? And how will such guarantees be expressed, or reconciled with public
opinion and constitutional practices?
For some, the greatest value in an agreement
lies in the prospect of an end, or at least a moderation, of Iran’s 3½
decades of militant hostility to the West and established international
institutions, and an opportunity to draw Iran into an effort to stabilize the
Middle East. Having both served in government during a period of
American-Iranian strategic alignment and experienced its benefits for both
countries as well as the Middle East, we would greatly welcome such an outcome.
Iran is a significant national state with a historic culture, a fierce national
identity, and a relatively youthful, educated population; its re-emergence as a
partner would be a consequential event.
But partnership in what task? Cooperation is
not an exercise in good feeling; it presupposes congruent definitions of
stability. There exists no current evidence that Iran and the U.S. are remotely
near such an understanding. Even while combating common enemies, such as ISIS,
Iran has declined to embrace common objectives. Iran’s representatives
(including its Supreme Leader) continue to profess a revolutionary anti-Western
concept of international order; domestically, some senior Iranians describe
nuclear negotiations as a form of jihad by other means.
The final stages of the nuclear talks have
coincided with Iran’s intensified efforts to expand and entrench its power in
neighboring states. Iranian or Iranian client forces are now the pre-eminent
military or political element in multiple Arab countries, operating beyond the
control of national authorities. With the recent addition of Yemen as a
battlefield, Tehran occupies positions along all of the Middle East’s
strategic waterways and encircles archrival Saudi Arabia, an American ally.
Unless political restraint is linked to nuclear restraint, an agreement freeing
Iran from sanctions risks empowering Iran’s hegemonic efforts.
Some have argued that these concerns are
secondary, since the nuclear deal is a way station toward the eventual domestic
transformation of Iran. But what gives us the confidence that we will prove more
astute at predicting Iran’s domestic course than Vietnam’s, Afghanistan’s,
Iraq’s, Syria’s, Egypt’s or Libya’s?
Absent the linkage between nuclear and
political restraint, America’s traditional allies will conclude that the U.S.
has traded temporary nuclear cooperation for acquiescence to Iranian hegemony.
They will increasingly look to create their own nuclear balances and, if
necessary, call in other powers to sustain their integrity. Does America still
hope to arrest the region’s trends toward sectarian upheaval, state collapse
and the disequilibrium of power tilting toward Tehran, or do we now accept this
as an irremediable aspect of the regional balance?
Some advocates have suggested that the
agreement can serve as a way to dissociate America from Middle East conflicts,
culminating in the military retreat from the region initiated by the current
administration. As Sunni states gear up to resist a new Shiite empire, the
opposite is likely to be the case. The Middle East will not stabilize itself,
nor will a balance of power naturally assert itself out of Iranian-Sunni
competition. (Even if that were our aim, traditional balance of power theory
suggests the need to bolster the weaker side, not the rising or expanding
power.) Beyond stability, it is in America’s strategic interest to prevent the
outbreak of nuclear war and its catastrophic consequences. Nuclear arms must not
be permitted to turn into conventional weapons. The passions of the region
allied with weapons of mass destruction may impel deepening American
If the world is to be spared even worse
turmoil, the U.S. must develop a strategic doctrine for the region. Stability
requires an active American role. For Iran to be a valuable member of the
international community, the prerequisite is that it accepts restraint on its
ability to destabilize the Middle East and challenge the broader international
Until clarity on an American strategic
political concept is reached, the projected nuclear agreement will reinforce,
not resolve, the world’s challenges in the region. Rather than enabling
American disengagement from the Middle East, the nuclear framework is more
likely to necessitate deepening involvement there—on complex new terms.
History will not do our work for us; it helps only those who seek to help