A failing nuclear treaty with Russia shows the right way to deal with Iran

July 2, 2015
Negotiators of Iran and six world powers face each other at a table in the historic basement of Palais Coburg hotel in Vienna

Negotiators of Iran and six world powers face each other in the historic basement of Palais Coburg hotel in Vienna April 24, 2015. REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader

As diplomats in Vienna race to meet the new July 7 deadline for an Iran nuclear deal, U.S. officials in Washington are grappling with how to save another arms-control accord — the Soviet-U.S. Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty — from falling apart. At first blush, there seems little in common between the Iran talks and a recent State Department report saying Moscow is still violating the nuclear weapons treaty. But a closer look provokes troubling questions about the Iranian agreement’s durability.

The Russian-U.S. treaty’s problems stem from three key defects that are repeated in the proposed Iran deal: the sunset of vital clauses, a questionable enforcement mechanism — known as the “economic sanctions snapback” — and uncertainties about what should follow if snapback fails.

The first two defects are already baked into the emerging Iran understanding, based on the reported “framework.” But negotiators can still do something about the third, which remains open. That could save the day.

The Obama administration’s filler that “all options are on the table” has been bolstered by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter recent broad warnings about military options should Tehran waiver in entering the agreement or fail to comply once it came into force. Yet it rings hollow without more specifics. If Washington is serious about insuring against an Iranian breakout, it must provide convincing substance to that pledge. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty reveals why.

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President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in the Oval Office, December 9, 1987. Courtesy of Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum

Negotiated by the Reagan administration in 1987, the landmark agreement banned an entire class of land-based nuclear cruise and ballistic missiles with ranges between 500 kilometers and 5,500 kilometers. The result: Russia destroyed 1,846 missiles, the United States destroyed 846. The treaty included the Cold War’s most intrusive on-site inspections of select missile, support and operating facilities up to that time. It also set up a special verification commission to resolve any future disputes.

In 2008, however, U.S. intelligence alerted the Bush administration that Moscow’s compliance was in question. Unfortunately, under treaty rules, on-site inspections had stopped in 2001. So Washington had far less satisfactory “national technical means” to fathom what Russia was up to. It was not until 2011 that the Obama administration could confidentially inform Congress about these concerns. It then took two more years before the administration confronted Moscow directly.

Concluding that the treaty’s verification commission was unable to deal with the violations, senior administration officials, from President Barack Obama on down, pressed the Kremlin for an explanation. They demanded Moscow halt its suspect activities, which, if continued, could put European capitals in the crosshairs.

Russia balked. With quiet diplomacy at a standstill, the State Department went public about the standoff in its 2014 annual arms-control compliance report. It declared Russia was “in violation” of its treaty obligations not to “possess, produce or flight-test” the proscribed cruise missiles and their launchers.

Yet, equally troubling, State and Defense Department officials did not have a plan to stop Moscow. In hearings before House committees this year and last, administration officials opined about various diplomatic, defense and military deployment options and possible sanctions — but had no firm policy to recommend.

Last month’s State Department arms-control compliance report provided no additional insights

The INF agreement highlights many similar deficiencies in the emerging Iran deal. Let’s start with clause elimination. The U.S.-Russian agreement sunsets one critical verification element 13 years into the treaty, as well as some lesser related passages earlier. The April 2, 2015 Iran framework anticipates elimination in the next 10 to 20-plus years of nearly a dozen clauses that constrain Iran’s nuclear development. Though lifting these curbs is set to occur well into the future, that should give little solace, considering Moscow’s violations took place two decades after the treaty entered into force.

It is true that the International Atomic Energy Agency inspections will continue indefinitely. But eliminating other restraints would put Tehran in a better position to break out of the agreement. And if it does, as with the INF agreement, there is no reliable mechanism in place to push back. The economic snapback provision can only work if allies remain committed years from now, and Iran cares.

The solution is to give the fallback position of “all options are on the table” real content. One approach would be to rely on secret contingency planning to spring on Iran should other brakes fail. But while that might keep the Iranian leadership guessing, hidden plans has little deterrent value. Going public and laying out the serious consequences that Iran would face if it cheated would be far more effective.

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President John F. Kennedy with Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara (R) at the National Security Council Executive Committee meeting in the Cabinet Room in the White House, October 29, 1962. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/Cecil Stoughton

We can look to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis for one template. Over 13 days in October, Washington’s messaging was clear: Moscow had to get the missiles out of Cuba, or else. Militarily, the Kennedy administration mobilized conventional forces to invade Cuba, dramatically raised the U.S. nuclear arsenal’s alert status, ordered a naval blockade and continued air surveillance of the island. Washington, meanwhile, also kept lines of formal and informal diplomatic communication open as it laid out its case against Moscow at the United Nations Security Council.

Too aggressive to enforce an Iran deal? That depends on how risky U.S. decision makers would find an Iranian nuclear breakout. The missile-crisis model may be one of a number of alternatives to wrap into a plan that Congress ought to bless in legislation to add credibility.

At a minimum, the plan must avoid ambiguity in sending Iran a message that gaming expired deal clauses — or other breakout measures—will be the roll of the dice that Tehran will lose.

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Do you work for a defense contractor or something? What do you have in mind… a full scale boots on the ground invasion of Iran? Or just dropping some bunker busters on their sites? Unlike Moscow, Iran with nuclear weapons poses no existential threat to the US as if they use a bomb against the US or a US interest Iran will be literally wiped off the face of the earth forever using a either conventional invasion or a retaliation strike. Even Iranians are not that pigheaded to want such an endgame.

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