The Iran Deal: Consequences and Alternatives

August 14, 2015

In his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Richard Nathan Haass analyses the nuclear deal with Iran and suggests that any vote by Congress to approve the pact should be linked to legislation or a White House statement that makes clear what the United States would do if there were Iranian non-compliance, what would be intolerable in the way of Iran’s long-term nuclear growth, and what the U.S. was prepared to do to counter Iranian threats to U.S. interests and friends in the Region.

Statement by Richard Nathan Haass

President, Council on Foreign Relations

Before the Committee on Armed Services of the United States Senate on August 4, 2015

1st Session, 114th Congress

Richard Nathan Haass

Mr. Chairman: Thank you for this opportunity to speak about the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” (JCPOA) signed on July 14 by representatives of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, Germany, and Iran. I want to make it clear that what you are about to hear are my personal views and should not be interpreted as representing the Council on Foreign Relations, which takes no institutional positions.

The agreement with Iran, like any agreement, is a compromise, filled with elements that are attractive from the vantage point of US national security as well as elements that are anything but.

A simple way of summarizing the pact and its consequences is that at its core the accord represents a strategic tradeoff. On one hand, the agreement places significant limits on what Iran is permitted to do in the nuclear realm for the next ten to fifteen years. But these limits, even if respected in full, come at a steep price.

The agreement almost certainly facilitates Iran’s efforts to promote its national security objectives throughout the region (many of which are inconsistent with our own) over that same period. And second, the agreement does not resolve the problems posed by Iran’s actual and potential nuclear capabilities. Many of these problems will become greater as we approach the ten year point (when restrictions on the quantity and quality of centrifuges come to an end) and its fifteen year point (when restrictions pertaining to the quality and quantity of enriched uranium also end).

I was not a participant in the negotiations; nor was I privy to its secrets. My view is that a better agreement could and should have materialized. But this debate is better left to historians. I will as a result address the agreement that exists. I would say at the outset it should be judged on its merits rather than on hopes it might lead (to borrow a term used by George Kennan in another context) to a mellowing of Iran. This is of course possible, but the agreement also could have just the opposite effect. We cannot know whether Iran will be transformed, much less how or how much. So the only things that makes sense to do now is to assess the agreement as a transaction and to predict as carefully as possible what effects it will likely have on Iran’s capabilities as opposed to its intentions.

I want to focus on three areas: on the nuclear dimension as detailed in the agreement; on the regional; and on nuclear issues over the longer term.

There is understandable concern as to whether Iran will comply with the letter and spirit of the agreement. Compliance cannot be assumed given Iran’s history of misleading the IAEA, the lack of sufficient data provided as to Iran’s nuclear past, the time permitted Iran to delay access to inspectors after site-specific concerns are raised, and the difficulty likely to be experienced in reintroducing sanctions. My own prediction is that Iran may be tempted to cut corners and engage in retail but not wholesale non-compliance lest it risk the reintroduction of sanctions and/or military attack. I should add that I come to this prediction in part because I believe that Iran benefits significantly from the accord and will likely see it in its own interest to mostly comply. But this cannot be assumed and may be wrong, meaning the United States, with as many other governments as it can persuade to go along, should both make Iran aware of the penalties for non-compliance and position itself to implement them if need be. I am assuming that the response to sustained non-compliance would be renewed sanctions and that any military action on our part would be reserved to an Iranian attempt at breaking out and fielding one or more nuclear weapons.

The regional dimension is more complex and more certain to be problem. Iran is an imperial power that seeks a major and possibly dominant role in the region. Sanctions relief will give it much greater means to pursue its goals, including helping minority and majority Shi’ite populations in neighboring countries, arming and funding proxies such as Hezbollah and Hamas, propping up the government in Damascus, and adding to sectarianism in Iraq by its unconditional support of the government and Shia militias. The agreement could well extend the Syrian civil war, as Iran will have new resources with which to back the Assad government. I hope that Iran will see that Assad’s continuation in power only fuels a conflict that provides recruiting opportunities for the Islamic State, which Iranian officials rightly see as a threat to themselves and the region. Unfortunately, such a change in thinking and policy is a long shot at best.

The United States needs to develop a policy for the region that can deal with a more capable, aggressive Iran. To be more precise, though, it is unrealistic to envision a single or comprehensive US policy for a part of the world that is and will continue to be afflicted by multiple challenges. As I have written elsewhere, the Middle East is in the early throes of what appears to be a modern day 30 Years War in which politics and religion will fuel conflict within and across boundaries for decades, resulting in a Middle East that looks very different from the one the world has grown familiar with over the past century.

I will put forward approaches for a few of these challenges. In Iraq, I would suggest the United States expand its intelligence, military, economic, and political ties with both the Kurds and Sunni tribes in the West. Over time, this has the potential to result in gradual progress in the struggle against the Islamic State.

Prospects for progress in Syria are poorer. The effort to build a viable opposition to both the government and various groups including but not limited to the Islamic State promises to be slow, difficult, anything but assured of success. A diplomatic push designed to produce a viable successor government to the Assad regime is worth exploring and, if possible, implementing. European governments likely would be supportive; the first test will be to determine Russian receptivity. If this is forthcoming, then a Joint approach to Iran would be called for.

I want to make two points here. First, as important as it would be to see the Assad regime ousted, there must be high confidence in the viability of its successor. Not only would Russia and Iran insist on it, but the United States should as well. Only with a viable successor can there be confidence the situation would not be exploited by the Islamic State and result in the establishment of a caliphate headquartered in Damascus and a massacre of Alawites and Christians. Some sort of a multinational force may well be essential.

Second, such a scenario assumes a diplomatic approach to Iran. This should cause no problems here or elsewhere. Differences with Iran in the nuclear and other realms should not preclude diplomatic explorations and cooperation where it can materialize because interests are aligned. Syria is one such possibility, as is Afghanistan. But such diplomatic overtures should not stop the United States acting, be it to interdict arms shipments from Iran to governments or non-state actors; nor should diplomatic outreach in any way constrain the United States from speaking out in reaction to internal political developments within Iran. New sanctions should also be considered when Iran takes steps outside the nuclear realms but still judged to be detrimental to other US interests.

Close consultations will be required with Saudi Arabia over any number of policies, including Syria. But three subjects in particular should figure in US-Saudi talks. First, the United States needs to work to discourage Saudi Arabia and others developing a nuclear option to hedge against what Iran might do down the road. A Middle East with nuclear materials in the hands of warring, potentially unstable regimes would be a nightmare. This could involve assurances as to what will not be tolerated (say, enrichment above a specified level) when it comes to Iran as well as calibrated security guarantees to Saudi Arabia and others.

Second, the Saudis should be encouraged to reconsider their current ambitious policy in Yemen, which seems destined to be a costly and unsuccessful distraction. The Saudi government would be wiser to concentrate on contending with internal threats to its security. And thirdly, Washington and Riyadh should maintain a close dialogue on energy issues as lower oil prices offer one way of limiting Iran’s capacity to pursue programs and policies detrimental to US and Saudi interests.

The agreement with Iran does not alter the reality that Egypt is pursuing a political trajectory unlikely to result in sustained stability or that Jordan will need help in coping with a massive refugee burden. Reestablishing strategic trust with Israel is a must, as is making sure it as well as other friends in the region have what they need to deal with threats to their security. (It matters not whether the threats come from Iran, the Islamic State, or elsewhere.) The United States should also step up its criticism of Turkey for both attacking the Kurds and for allowing its territory to be used as a pipeline for recruits to reach Syria and join the Islamic State.

The third area of concern linked to the nuclear pact with Iran stems from its medium and long-term capabilities in the nuclear realm. It is necessary but not sufficient that Iran not be permitted to assemble one or more nuclear bombs. It is also necessary that it not be allowed to develop the ability to field a large arsenal of weapons with little or no warning. This calls for consultations with European and regional governments to begin sooner rather than later on a follow-on agreement to the current JCPOA. The use of sanctions, covert action, and military force should also be addressed in this context.

I am aware that members of Congress have the responsibility to vote on the Iran agreement. As I have said, it is a flawed agreement. But the issue before the Congress is not whether the agreement is good or bad but whether from this point on the United States is better or worse off with it. It needs to be recognized that passage of a resolution of disapproval (presumably overriding a presidential veto) entails several Major drawbacks.

First, it would allow Iran to resume nuclear activity in an unconstrained manner, increasing the odds the United States would be faced with a decision – possibly as soon as this year or next – as to whether to tolerate the emergence of a threshold or actual nuclear weapons state or use military force against it.

Second, by acting unilaterally at this point, the United States would make itself rather than Iran the issue. In this vein, imposing unilateral sanctions would hurt Iran but not enough to make it alter the basics of ist nuclear program. Third, voting the agreement down and calling for a reopening of negotiations with the aim of producing a better agreement is not a real option as there would insufficient international support for so doing. Here, again, the United States would likely isolate itself, not Iran. And fourth, voting down the agreement would reinforce questions and doubts around the world as to American political divisions and dysfunction. Reliability and predictability are essential attributes for a great power that must at one and the same time both reassure and deter.

The alternative to voting against the agreement is obviously to vote for it. The problem with a simple vote that defeats a resolution of disapproval and that expresses unconditional support of the JCPOA is that it does not address the serious problems the agreement either exacerbated or failed to resolve.

So let me suggest a third path. What I would encourage members to explore is whether a vote for the pact (against a resolution of disapproval) could be associated or linked with policies designed to address and compensate for the weaknesses and likely adverse consequences of the agreement. I can imagine such assurances in the form of legislation voted on by the Congress and signed by the president or a communication from the president to the Congress, possibly followed up by a joint resolution. Whatever the form, it would have to deal with either what the United States would not tolerate or what the United States would do in the face of Iranian non-compliance with the recent agreement, Iran’s long-term nuclear growth, and Iranian regional activities.

Mr. Chairman, thank you again for asking me to meet with you and your colleagues here today. I of course look forward to any questions or comments you may have.


US Presidential Election 2016: Restoring America’s Strength

August 7, 2015

In an a op-ed in Foreign Affairs, Marco Rubio, senator from Florida and candidate for the Republican presidential nomination writes that his foreign policy “would restore the post-1945 bipartisan presidential tradition of a strong and engaged America while adjusting it to meet the new realities of a globalized world.”

My Vision for U.S. Foreign Policy

The Obama administration’s handling of Iran has demonstrated this with alarming clarity. Tehran exploited the president’s lack of strength throughout the negotiations over its nuclear program by wringing a series of dangerous concessions from the United States and its partners, including the ability to enrich uranium, keep the Arak and Fordow nuclear facilities open, avoid admitting its past transgressions, and ensure a limited timeline for the agreement.

How did a nation with as little intrinsic leverage as Iran win so many concessions? Part of the answer is that President Obama took off the table the largest advantage our nation had entering into the negotiations: military strength. Although the president frequently said that “all options are on the table” with regard to Iran, his administration consistently signaled otherwise. Several senior officials openly criticized the notion of a military strike, and the president himself publicly said that there could be no military solution to the Iranian nuclear program. This was underscored by a historic reluctance to engage throughout the Middle East, from pulling troops out of Iraq at all costs to retreating from the stated redline on the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

President Obama became so publicly opposed to military action that he sacrificed any option that could have conceivably raised the stakes and forced the mullahs into making major concessions. Iran recognized that it could push for greater compromise without fear that the United States would break off the talks. The president’s drive for a deal caused him to forsake a basic principle of diplomacy with rogue regimes: it must be backed by the threat of force. As president, I would have altered the basic environment of the talks. I would have maneuvered forces in the region to signal readiness; linked the nuclear talks to Iran’s broader conduct, from its human rights abuses to its support for terrorism and its existential threats against Israel; and pressured Tehran on all fronts, from Syria to Yemen.

It is true that Iran, in response to these displays of strength, may have broken off negotiations or even lashed out in the region. History, however, suggests that even if Iran had created more trouble in the near term, increased pressure would have eventually forced it to back down. That is exactly what happened in 1988, when Iran ended its war with Iraq and its attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf after the Reagan administration sent in the U.S. Navy. More recently, after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Iran halted a key component of its nuclear program.

It’s not too late to mitigate the damage of the administration’s mishandling of Iran. By rescinding the flawed deal concluded by President Obama and reasserting our presence in the Middle East, we can reverse Iran’s malign influence in this vitally important region and prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. The security of the region, the safety of Israel, and the interests of the entire world require an American approach toward Tehran marked by strength and leadership rather than weakness and concession.

OPEN FOR BUSINESS

The second pillar of my foreign policy is the protection of an open international economy in an increasingly globalized world. Millions of the best jobs in this century will depend on international trade that will be possible only when global sea-lanes are open and sovereign nations are protected from the aggression of larger neighbors. Thus, the prosperity of American families is tied to the safety and stability of regions on the other side of the world, from Asia to the Middle East to Europe.

That is why Russia’s violation of Ukrainian sovereignty is much more than a question of where lines are drawn on the maps of eastern Europe. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and efforts to sow instability in eastern Ukraine were sparked, in no small part, by the decision of a sovereign Ukrainian government to seek closer political and economic ties with the European Union and the West.

Russia’s actions are a historic affront to the post–World War II global order on which the global economy depends, and they set a disturbing precedent in a world of rising powers with surging ambitions. Our halting and meager response sends a message to other countries that borders can be violated and countries invaded without serious consequences. The threat of this precedent is profound. America should never have to ask permission from a regional power to conduct commerce with any nation. We cannot allow the world to become a place where countries become off-limits to us as markets and trading partners because of violence, uncertainty, or the blustering threats of an autocratic ruler.

Russia’s actions are emblematic of a larger global trend. From the Strait of Hormuz to the South China Sea, authoritarian states increasingly threaten recognized borders and international waters, airspace, cyberspace, and outer space as a means of gaining leverage over their neighbors and over the United States. Since the end of World War II, the United States has prospered in part because it guarded those critical pathways, and U.S. engagement has a distinguished record of increasing the well-being of other countries, from Germany and Japan to South Korea and Colombia. By failing to maintain this devotion to protecting the lanes of commerce, the Obama administration has exposed international markets to exploitation and chaos.

I will also isolate Russia diplomatically, expanding visa bans and asset freezes on high-level Russian officials and pausing cooperation with Moscow on global strategic challenges. The United States should also station U.S. combat troops in eastern Europe to make clear that we will honor our commitments to our NATO allies and to discourage further Russian aggression.

If that support is coupled with more robust support for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and a willingness to leverage America’s newly gained status as a leader in oil and natural gas by lifting the ban on U.S. exports, we can help guard our European allies from Russia’s attempts to use trade and energy dependence as a weapon. This will also assist our efforts to help Ukraine’s leaders modernize and reform their economy and ultimately consolidate their independence from Moscow.

By preserving Ukraine’s freedom and demonstrating that the United States will not tolerate such threats to the global economy, the United States can begin to deter other potential aggressors from bullying their neighbors, including an increasingly ambitious China.

DEFENDING FREEDOM

Our approach to China in this century relates to the last pillar of my foreign policy: the need for moral clarity regarding America’s core values. Our devotion to the spread of human rights and liberal democratic principles has been a part of the fabric of our country since its founding and a beacon of hope for so many oppressed peoples around the globe. It is also a strategic imperative that requires pragmatism and idealism in equal measure.

Members of the Obama administration have signaled a disturbing willingness to ignore human rights violations in the hope of appeasing the Chinese leadership. In the administration’s early days in 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that human rights “can’t interfere” with other ostensibly more important bilateral issues, and in the months before Xi Jinping ascended to China’s top leadership post in 2012, Vice President Joe Biden told him that U.S. support for human rights was merely a matter of domestic political posturing.

As we have fallen silent about the true nature of the Chinese Communist Party, the Chinese government has stymied democratic efforts in Hong Kong, raided the offices of human rights organizations, arrested scores of activists, redoubled its efforts to monitor and control the Internet, and continued repressive policies in Tibet and other Chinese regions, all while rapidly expanding its military, threatening its neighbors, establishing military installations on disputed islands, and carrying out unprecedented cyberattacks against America. China’s actions reveal a basic truth: the manner in which governments treat their own citizens is indicative of the manner in which they will treat other nations. Beijing’s repression at home and its aggressiveness abroad are two branches of the same tree. If the United States hopes to restore stability in East Asia, it has to speak with clarity and strength regarding the universal rights and values that America represents.

The best way for the United States to counter China’s expansion in East Asia is through support for liberty. The “rebalance” to Asia needs to be about more than just physical posturing. We must stand for the principles that have allowed Asian economies to grow so rapidly and for democracy to take root in the region. Only American leadership can show the Chinese government that its increasingly aggressive regional expansionism will be countered by a reinforcement of cooperation among like-minded nations in the region.

As president, I will strengthen ties with Asia’s democracies, from India to Taiwan. Bolstering liberty on China’s periphery can galvanize the region against Beijing’s hostility and change China’s political future. I will also back the Chinese people’s demands for unrestricted Internet access and their appeals for the basic human right of free speech. I will engage with dissidents, reformers, and religious rights activists, and I will reject Beijing’s attempts to block our contacts with these champions of freedom. I will also redouble U.S. support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and ensure that, once the trade deal is concluded, additional countries are able to join, expanding the creation of what will be millions of jobs here at home as well as abroad.

China will likely resist these efforts, but it is dependent on its economic relationship with the United States and, despite angry outbursts, will have no choice but to preserve it. President Ronald Reagan proved through his diplomacy with the Soviet Union that having a productive relationship with a great power and insisting on that power’s improvement of human rights are not conflicting aims. If the United States can pursue this agenda with China even as it continues its economic engagement, it will demonstrate that America remains committed to the cause of freedom in our time. I believe that when true freedom for the 1.3 billion people of China is finally attained, the impact will fundamentally change the course of human history.

FROM DISENGAGEMENT TO LEADERSHIP

These are only three examples of the challenges the United States will face in this century. They are all examples of problems that will require deft, multifaceted leadership. In addition to existing and emerging threats, we undoubtedly will be confronted with unexpected crises in the years ahead. These unknowns highlight the importance of establishing a fixed set of principles and objectives to guide American leadership. After years of strategic disengagement, this is the only way to restore global certainty regarding American commitments.

 By making retrenchment his primary objective, President Obama has put the international system at the mercy of the most ruthless aggressors. They are constantly seeking to undermine the basic principles of the post-1945 world by challenging American military primacy, threatening the global commons, and undermining liberal values. That Iran, Russia, and China are each challenging the United States in these spheres at the same time demonstrates their mutual desire for a departure from the postwar order.

The authoritarian rulers of these nations find an open international system deeply threatening to their exclusive grip on domestic political power. They cannot simply be reassured or persuaded, and they will push their agendas with whatever tools we give them the latitude to use. We cannot assume that these states will negotiate in good faith or see it in their interest to come to an agreement. If we allow the continued erosion of our military, economic, and moral strength, we will see a further breakdown in global order cast a lengthening shadow across our domestic prosperity and safety.

Retrenchment and retreat are not our destiny. The United States, by its presence alone, has the ability to alter balances, realign regional powers, promote stability, and enhance liberty. Only we can form coalitions based on mutual investment and mutual sacrifice. Our sole goal has never been to remain the world’s preeminent power. We will encourage and assist the rise of more powers when their rise is benign or noble. We wish to be a fraternal force rather than a paternal one.

This principle has marked the bipartisan tradition of U.S. foreign policy for the last 70 years. Our recent departure from this tradition has brought only violence, chaos, and discord. By advancing the three pillars of my foreign policy, I intend to restore American leadership to a world badly in need of it and defend our interests in what I’m confident will be another American century.

Reprinted with kindly permission of Foreign Affairs.