July 14, 2015

A historic agreement

The nuclear agreement reached in Vienna creates an unprecedented opportunity for the United States to deter Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and increase stability in the Middle East.  It is also a far better option than the realistic alternatives. 

The agreement will create conditions such that it will be extraordinarily difficult for Iran to use its existing facilities to build nuclear weapons without being caught and stopped in time.  


The unprecedented inspections regime, which includes access to every step in Iran’s supply chain of fissile material production, should prevent Iran from secretly building a nuclear weapon without being detected long before getting to the finish line. 

Sanctions relief, which will only come after Iran has taken major steps to limit its nuclear program, should incentivize Iran to follow through on its commitments.  The threat of sanctions snapping back into place should be a strong deterrent to dissuade Iran from cheating on its nuclear commitments. 

The deal will not only reduce the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran but also of possible military conflict.  Failure to reach an agreement would not inevitably mean war, but it would significantly increase the risk of such an outcome over time.  

The United States would overwhelmingly dominate such a fight and the consequences to Iran would be much more severe than to the United States.  But we should remember, when the United States intervenes in a Middle Eastern country it finds it difficult to get out – as evidenced by its involvement in Iraq, which is now approaching 25 years. 

Despite these benefits, as with any tough negotiation the agreement is not perfect.  Opponents argue the Administration should have held out for a better deal that would have virtually eliminated Iran’s nuclear capabilities.  But this approach has been tried before and failed. 

Between 2003 and 2005 Iran suspended its nuclear program and entered negotiations with France, Germany, and the UK.  At the time, Iran had a nascent program and was willing to accept an agreement similar to the one that proponents of a better deal today extol.  But rather than take that agreement, the parties walked away.  

Afterwards, Iran began to increase the size of its nuclear program building 20,000 centrifuges and changing facts on the ground – all of which occurred under sanctions pressure.  A walkway strategy now would likely yield a similar outcome.  

Another concern is that some of the toughest limitations on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure in the deal will only last for 10-15 years.  Permanent restrictions would have been better, but were unattainable. There is no other option that could buy 15 years, including military strikes.  If 15 years from now Iran chose to violate the agreement and pursue a nuclear weapon, the same military options would still be available to the United States. 

Finally, there is concern about negotiating with an oppressive regime that supports terrorism, violates human rights, and is responsible for the death of thousands of Americans over the past 35 years.  

During the Cold War, Republican and Democratic Presidents negotiated arms control agreements with the Soviet Union notwithstanding Soviet support for proxy wars that killed thousands of Americans.  U.S. leaders and international partners negotiated these deals because preventing nuclear proliferation was an overriding priority.  

Going forward the agreement faces two major risks.  First, without sufficient bipartisan support long-term implementation will suffer and the deal may collapse. 

After a deal the Obama administration should work with Congress on legislation that would include provisions for policy response, including tough economic sanctions, in the event of Iranian violations, more funding for international inspections, and a Congressional panel to ensure sustained long-term oversight of implementation.  Opponents of the agreement could still support such a measure by stating that even though they oppose the deal they would sooner strengthen it. 

The other major risk is that the agreement damages America’s relations with key Middle Eastern partners, most notably Israel and Saudi Arabia. The United States should signal to its partners that it remains committed to them by taking a harder line against Iran’s support for surrogates and proxies in the Middle East.  Such a policy would also signal Iran that a nuclear agreement does not mean the United States will tolerate Iranian provocations that are against American interests. 

Even as the United States pushes back against Iran, it should also take advantage of the new channels of communication that have been developed as a result of the negotiations to see if there are opportunities for mutual cooperation.  This will be a tough balancing act, but one that is often pursued when dealing with states such as Russia and China who are America’s competitors in the international arena. 

In the end, a nuclear agreement is a net benefit to America’s national security and far superior to the alternative.  It also has the potential to dramatically and positively reshape the international landscape, but only if the United States pursues the right set of policies after a deal to consolidate gains and mitigate risks.

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