Testimony of Michael Singh of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy Before the House Armed Services Committee on the P5+1 Negotiations Over Iran's Nuclear Program and its Implications for United States Defense

June 19, 2014

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear
  • Missile
  • Military

Mentioned Suspect Entities & Suppliers: 

The nuclear negotiations between the United States, our partners in the P5+1, and Iran involve a large number of technical issues, ranging from the number and sophistication of Iran's gas centrifuges to the configuration of its heavy-water research reactor. It would be a mistake, however, to view any agreement between Iran and the P5+1 as merely technical, even if the United States would prefer to do so. If such an agreement is concluded, it will have profound strategic implications for the United States and our allies in the Middle East and beyond.

It is frequently asserted that economic sanctions—especially restrictions on Iran's oil exports and its access to the international financial system—are to be credited for recent advances in the nuclear talks. While these sanctions very likely played a role in Tehran's calculus and in Iran's 2013 presidential campaign, they were not the only factor in play. As the United States and the European Union ratcheted up sanctions pressure, the P5+1 also made key nuclear concessions. Whether economic and military pressure alone would have persuaded Iran to change course absent these concessions is unknowable.

The most important of these concessions was that Iran would be permitted to enrich uranium indefinitely (although initially subject to agreed limits) under any long-term nuclear accord, which was widely seen as a de facto recognition of Iran's "right to enrich," which former Senator John Kerry had in any event acknowledged prior to being named Secretary of State. In addition, the November 24, 2013, "Joint Plan of Action" interim agreement excluded any requirement that Iran dismantle any of its covertly constructed nuclear facilities, despite Washington's earlier insistence that Tehran do so.

The JPOA thus represented the realization of many of Iran's long-held aims and the reappraisal of our own, or at least the promise of this outcome pending the conclusion of a long-term accord. US officials did not only walk back from previous US demands, most notably the requirement that Iran halt uranium enrichment, but dismissed those positions as unrealistic or "maximalist," despite the fact that they were enshrined in multiple UN Security Council resolutions that drew broad international support. This contributed to the sense that the US had made a sharp shift, and opened a gap between the US position and that of allies in the region and beyond.

Fuel Cycle Activities

With regard to Iran's fuel cycle activities, P5+1 negotiators' focusis restricting them in order to lengthen to the greatest extent possible Iran's "breakout time," and putting in place stringent verification and monitoring measures to ensure Iranian compliance. However, an additional challenge the United States will face in the wake of a nuclear agreement in Iran is preventing the further spread of enrichment and reprocessing technology.

Many states in the region consider Iranian nuclear capabilities to pose a grave threat, and have an incentive to match those capabilities. Persuading allies to refrain from doing so will pose a challenge—it is one thing to ask them to forgo capabilities that Iran has developed in defiance of international obligations, and quite another to persuade them to refrain from acquiring technology which has explicitly been permitted to Iran. In crafting nuclear compromises with Iran, P5+1 negotiators should assume that other states in the region– in the long run if not immediately—will pursue whatever capabilities Tehran possesses, and likely without the special limitations and verification measures to which it will be subject.

Ballistic Missiles

One of the most controversial questions regarding the nuclear talks is whether they should cover Iran's ballistic missile program. Iran's Supreme Leader has insisted adamantly that Iran's missile program is off-limits in the negotiations; P5+1 officials have been ambiguous. There should be no question, however, that Iran should be required to cease elements of its ballistic-missile and space-launch programs as part of a nuclear accord. Development of a delivery vehicle is one of three elements of a nuclear weapons program, along with fuel fabrication and weaponization.

According to the US Institute of Peace, Iran is the only country to develop a 2,000 km-range ballistic missile without first developing a nuclear weapons capability, and Iran's ballistic missiles are ill-suited to conventional payloads due to their poor accuracy. Insisting that Iran halt the development of missiles capable of carrying nuclear payloads, especially intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), would ensure that it cannot use the time and space afforded by a nuclear agreement to perfect this element of its nuclear work., Given that the Defense Department assesses Iran could have an ICBM by 2015 at the earliest, it is apparently the furthest of the three elements from completion.

Another benefit of addressing Iranian ballistic missile activities in a nuclear agreement would be to ensure that Iranian military authorities, not only its civilian nuclear agency, are bound by the accord and subject to the scrutiny of inspectors. Competing power centers are a feature of nearly all governments, but in Iran the problem appears particularly acute; many Iranian military entities report not to the Iranian president, with whom the P5+1 is negotiating, but to the Supreme Leader, who has expressed qualified support for the negotiations but otherwise remained aloof from them. An agreement will only be worthwhile if all Iranian entities involved in Iran's nuclear program perceive themselves to be subject to it.

Regional Issues

At this stage, the best approach—and the one seemingly preferred by both P5+1 and Iranian negotiators—is to leave regional issues out of the nuclear negotiations. Sanctions applicable to Iran's support for terrorism and other non-nuclear activities should continue to be enforced even if a nuclear agreement is reached, unless and until Iran demonstrates a readiness to reconsider its regional activities.

Enforcement Mechanism

Neither the most stringent nuclear restrictions nor the most extensive verification and monitoring mechanisms can be effective without a credible enforcement mechanism. Whether as part of a nuclear agreement or as a corollary to it, the US should seek to obtain—as a condition of our acceptance of the deal– advance agreement from the other P5+1 states that Iranian violations of the agreement will be punishable by the reimposition of sanctions or even the use of force, if necessary.

Washington should also make it clear that should Moscow or others block an effective Security Council response to Iranian cheating, we will be prepared to act outside this framework in concert with allies. Because Iran has proven adept at bending rather than crossing US red lines, such planning should cover not only extreme scenarios which might call for military action—such as the expulsion of inspectors or the discovery of additional covert facilities—but for less provocative forms of non-cooperation, such as delaying access to or harassing inspectors.

Managing the Consequences of a Nuclear Agreement

Whether we like it or not, allies not only in the region but around the world will judge our commitment to the Middle East and to leadership abroad more generally by both the content of an accord with Iran and the policy context in which it is grounded. Thus far, the shifting US positions in the Iran nuclear negotiations have contributed to a perception of US disengagement. This perception has been fed by many other factors—our failure to enforce the President's "red line" on Syria, the total withdrawal of US forces from Iraq, the reduction of our aircraft carrier presence in the Gulf, and talk of energy independence and a "pivot" to Asia, for example.  It has been further compounded by the crises in Ukraine and the South China Sea, which have illustrated the challenges we face in defending vulnerable non-treaty allies from external aggression.

For its part, Iran is likely to portray any nuclear agreement as a victory against the United States and our allies regardless of its content. While officials from P5+1 states may hope that an accord leads to a broader easing of tensions with Iran, Tehran's regional policies such as its support for terrorism and involvement in Syria are not apparently under the control of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a relative pragmatist, but of the more hardline Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Unless this balance of power shifts in the wake of a nuclear agreement, it seems more likely that Iran's regional strategy will remain unchanged, even as it enjoys greater resources with which to pursue it as sanctions are eased.

Thus, a dangerous regional dynamic could thus arise in the wake of a nuclear accord—even one that is otherwise deemed a success by US officials—as our allies take autonomous steps to defend their interests (which could include simultaneously confronting and accommodating Iran), and an emboldened Iran pursues its regional agenda with renewed vigor. The result could be a deepening of the conflict already gripping the Middle East, which would threaten our extensive interests in the region.

Preventing such an outcome will require the United States to find ways to reassure allies and deter Iran, and demonstrate an enduring commitment to the Middle East. Preparations to do so should begin now, and should be pursued as vigorously as the nuclear negotiations. Such steps could include:

Step up efforts to interdict Iranian arms. If a nuclear agreement is reached, we can demonstrate that we do not intend to overlook Iran's other destabilizing activities by placing a greater emphasis on detecting and intercepting Iranian arms shipments to Syria, Hezbollah, and other proxies, and on countering those proxies' activities more broadly

Maintaining a credible military presence. The possible need to respond militarily to developments in Iraq may have put on hold any hopes of reducing the US military presence in the Middle East. Nevertheless, even absent the Iraq crisis, maintaining a robust American military presence in the region will be vital for ensuring the credibility of any enforcement mechanism accompanying a nuclear agreement, as well as for reassuring allies.

Back-load the lifting of sanctions. Rather than asking Congress to lift sanctions as part of the initial phases of any nuclear deal, any permanent sanctions relief—as opposed to sanctions waivers or the unfreezing of assets—should come at the end of the implementation period for the agreement. This would allow both Congress and US allies in the region time to judge Tehran's commitment to the deal.

Achieving a nuclear agreement that adequately secures our interests and those of our allies will be difficult and require patience, and taking steps to reassert our commitment to the Middle East, reassure allies, and deter Iran will require effort and resources when other crises around the world are competing for both. But these two broad lines of action can be mutually reinforcing—Iran is more likely to accept and adhere to a stringent nuclear accord if it perceives that the US is willing to hold out at the negotiating table and is not looking for a quick exit from the region, and any adverse regional consequences of an agreement may be less if it is perceived to reflect American resolve rather than diffidence. To state that "no deal is better than a bad deal" is only meaningful given some yardstick for what makes a deal "good" or "bad;" for the United States, that yardstick must be the extent to which a deal advances our—and our allies'—strategic interests in the Middle East and beyond.