Iranian President Hassan Rouhani Ludovic Marin/Getty Images

The Iran Nuclear Deal Is Bad – and Necessary

North Korea is the proverbial horse that has broken the stable door, but, thanks to the Iran nuclear agreement, the Iranian horse remains in the barn. The US should be attempting to corral the defiant North Korea, not giving Iran a reason to break out, too.

TEL AVIV – US President Donald Trump has refused to certify the nuclear agreement with Iran, launching a process by which the US Congress could re-impose sanctions on the country. Fortunately, it seems likely that Congress, rather than pulling the plug on the deal, will seek some alternative that allows Trump to save face with his supporters, to whom he has long promised US withdrawal from the Iran deal. Nonetheless, decertification is a serious mistake.

The Year Ahead 2018

The world’s leading thinkers and policymakers examine what’s come apart in the past year, and anticipate what will define the year ahead.

Order now

Like many Israelis, I agree with Trump that the international agreement reached with Iran in 2015 is fundamentally a bad deal. But it is also a done deal. Even if the United States does decide to withdraw from it completely, none of the other parties – not China or Russia or even the Europeans (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) – will follow suit. Iran would continue to reap the agreement’s benefits.

At the same time, however, Iran could view the US decision to renege on the deal as justification for reviving its halted nuclear program. After all, the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act authorizes the US president to decertify the deal if Iran violates its terms. And, at least technically, Iran has done no such thing.

Of course, Iran’s behavior – developing powerful ballistic missiles, helping to spread terror across the Middle East, and running intensive cyber warfare campaigns – is deeply troubling, and measures should be taken to apply pressure on Iran to address these issues. But none of them was part of the nuclear deal.

In this context, if Trump does decertify the Iran deal right now, it will undermine America’s credibility when it comes to reining in another nuclear threat: North Korea. If the US can default on its international commitments for no reason, why would Kim Jong-un bother to engage in negotiations?

Kim might be an extremist of the first order, but his motivations are easy to discern. He views nuclear weapons as the ultimate insurance against a steep and ignominious fall, like those of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. Moreover, however mighty the US military is, it cannot destroy North Korea’s nuclear arsenal without provoking a counterattack inflicting untold destruction on South Korea and perhaps also Japan – both close US allies. That gives Kim substantial leverage.

The only possible way to deter Kim is through coercive diplomacy that compels him to freeze his nuclear program at something like its current level. And it was just this sort of coercive diplomacy, backed by sanctions and a united position among major international actors, that compelled Iran to sign its own deal.

If such diplomacy loses its credibility, Kim will inevitably continue to expand his nuclear-weapons program, and global risks will rise exponentially – not least because neighbors like South Korea and Japan will be increasingly eager to develop their own nuclear weapons. With that, the cause of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament – a goal that the US has pursued for almost 70 years – will be all but dead.

The most immediate threat would be a decision by Iran to relaunch its own nuclear-weapon program. Should that happen, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey would be virtually certain to pursue nuclear breakout. In fact, any third-rate dictator in the world watching these developments might decide to pursue nuclear weapons. The entire global order would be fundamentally changed.

North Korea is the proverbial horse that has broken the stable door and bolted. But, thanks to the current agreement, the Iranian horse remains in the barn. The US should be attempting to corral North Korea, not giving Iran reason to bolt, too.

This does not mean that the US needs to be passive. In fact, the US should be preparing for a potential future Iranian nuclear breakout – a distinct possibility, even if the current deal is upheld. Iran would be unlikely to pursue nuclear breakout immediately, because the deal still affords it substantial benefits. A few years from now, however, those benefits would be largely secured, giving Iran less reason to stick to its promises.

Given this, rather than parting ways with the other parties that helped to negotiate the agreement, the US should be seeking a consensus on what would constitute an Iranian breakout, in order to help guide the inspections conducted by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The US should also coordinate with the agreement’s other signatories regarding the sanctions and other punishments that would be meted out if Iran actually did breach the deal.

For any of this to work, however, the “big American stick” must be present. The US must be prepared, in terms of intelligence, weapons, and political will, to intervene – unilaterally, if needed – to stop Iran, should it try to follow in North Korea’s footsteps.

Deal or no deal, Iran represents a serious threat – to Israel, of course, but also to the stability of the Middle East and, in a sense, of the whole world. But, as of now, that threat is not existential. Preventing it from becoming so should be a top priority today. We in Israel who have been thinking seriously about this challenge for some time – not to mention working hard to prepare ourselves for various contingencies – recognize that, for now, our security is best served by maintaining the current deal.

Over the last 25 years, six countries have tried to turn themselves into nuclear states. Two of them – Libya and South Africa – gave up. Another two – Syria and Iraq – were stopped. And two – Pakistan and North Korea – succeeded, in defiance of the international community. We must ensure that Iran is not allowed to join their ranks. And, so long as Iran remains compliant, the nuclear deal, however bad it is, remains our best chance to do just that.;

Handpicked to read next

  1. Patrick Kovarik/Getty Images

    The Summit of Climate Hopes

    Presidents, prime ministers, and policymakers gather in Paris today for the One Planet Summit. But with no senior US representative attending, is the 2015 Paris climate agreement still viable?

  2. Trump greets his supporters The Washington Post/Getty Images

    Populist Plutocracy and the Future of America

    • In the first year of his presidency, Donald Trump has consistently sold out the blue-collar, socially conservative whites who brought him to power, while pursuing policies to enrich his fellow plutocrats. 

    • Sooner or later, Trump's core supporters will wake up to this fact, so it is worth asking how far he might go to keep them on his side.
  3. Agents are bidding on at the auction of Leonardo da Vinci's 'Salvator Mundi' Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images

    The Man Who Didn’t Save the World

    A Saudi prince has been revealed to be the buyer of Leonardo da Vinci's "Salvator Mundi," for which he spent $450.3 million. Had he given the money to the poor, as the subject of the painting instructed another rich man, he could have restored eyesight to nine million people, or enabled 13 million families to grow 50% more food.

  4.  An inside view of the 'AknRobotics' Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

    Two Myths About Automation

    While many people believe that technological progress and job destruction are accelerating dramatically, there is no evidence of either trend. In reality, total factor productivity, the best summary measure of the pace of technical change, has been stagnating since 2005 in the US and across the advanced-country world.

  5. A student shows a combo pictures of three dictators, Austrian born Hitler, Castro and Stalin with Viktor Orban Attila Kisbenedek/Getty Images

    The Hungarian Government’s Failed Campaign of Lies

    The Hungarian government has released the results of its "national consultation" on what it calls the "Soros Plan" to flood the country with Muslim migrants and refugees. But no such plan exists, only a taxpayer-funded propaganda campaign to help a corrupt administration deflect attention from its failure to fulfill Hungarians’ aspirations.

  6. Project Syndicate

    DEBATE: Should the Eurozone Impose Fiscal Union?

    French President Emmanuel Macron wants European leaders to appoint a eurozone finance minister as a way to ensure the single currency's long-term viability. But would it work, and, more fundamentally, is it necessary?

  7. The Year Ahead 2018

    The world’s leading thinkers and policymakers examine what’s come apart in the past year, and anticipate what will define the year ahead.

    Order now