I have spent a large portion of the past decade assessing military options against Iran’s program and the costs, benefits and likely consequences of the use of force. I have previously argued that any attack must answer the question of the end game: what is the long-term outcome of military force? Taking this deal, if it is implemented as currently outlined, not only increases the benefits and reduces the costs of military action should Iran attempt breakout, it also helps answer the end game question.
There are three main ways the deal improves the benefits of potential military action. First, one of the main objections to using force is that after Iran is bombed it can reconstitute its program, primarily by building new centrifuges for enrichment. Critics of force often argue Iran could reconstitute quickly because the United States lacks detailed knowledge of the supply chain that would allow Iran to build new centrifuges.
The deal very specifically addresses this objection in multiple points. It calls for inspectors to continuously monitor Iran’s supply chain, emphasizing “Iran’s centrifuge manufacturing base will be frozen and under continuous surveillance.” Further, Iran will only be allowed to procure nuclear components through a transparent and dedicated procurement channel. From an intelligence perspective this as an unparalleled opportunity to collect, analyze and develop targeting databases on this crucial element of Iran’s ability to reconstitute its nuclear program. A bombing campaign that effectively destroyed the centrifuge manufacturing base would cripple Iran’s ability to reconstitute for years, perhaps even a decade or more. This opportunity alone should make Iran hawks gleeful.
Second, the deal forces Iran to concentrate the bulk of its centrifuges in the Natanz enrichment facility and to drastically curtail its stockpile of low enriched uranium. Natanz, though buried, is much more vulnerable to U.S. “bunker-buster” bombs than the much more deeply buried Fordo facility. This ensures that if the United States does strike, it can rapidly and with high confidence destroy the vast bulk of Iran’s centrifuges, leaving just over 1,000 available in Fordo. Fordo would be more difficult to destroy, but with only a relative handful of centrifuges and a very limited supply of low enriched uranium, Iran’s breakout timeline would be lengthy. This would give the United States ample time to pound away at the facility with weapons such as the 30,000-pound Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP).
Third, the deal significantly increases the scope and scale of inspections. This helps ensure that Iran cannot achieve a breakout undetected – so-called “sneak out” – either in its declared facilities or in clandestine facilities. This caveat also generally expands the U.S. intelligence community’s understanding of the nuclear program and decision-making surrounding it. Even if Iran seeks to thwart some inspections, the patterns revealed can help the intelligence community unravel Iranian deception practices as well as focus scarce intelligence collection on those areas where the Iranians are most evasive. This all helps improve targeting for military action.
In addition to increasing benefits of military options, the deal can reduce costs of action. One of the main costs of military action now is that it could cause the current sanctions regime to collapse, as a U.S. (or Israeli) strike would be seen as an act of unprovoked preventive war. The collapse of sanctions could benefit Iran immensely, particularly in terms of reconstituting its nuclear program. In contrast, if Iran is seen to be violating the deal through attempted breakout, sanctions are to be rapidly reinstated. In this case, military action would not be seen as a decision to give up on diplomacy. Instead, it would be seen as a response to Iranian violations of a diplomatic deal that already had the blessing of the United Nations. Indeed it might even be possible to get a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force against Iran’s program in this context. Admittedly, given the Russian and Chinese vetoes it is unlikely. Thus the deal may be the only way to have internationally supported sanctions and the effective use of force simultaneously.
It is this combination that helps answer the end game question. If Iran is widely seen to be violating such a hard won (and relatively generous) deal by attempting breakout, the use of force can lead to an outcome that is catastrophic for Iran. Not only would Iran’s entire nuclear infrastructure, built over decades, be demolished but it could be diplomatically and economically more isolated than it is now. In this end game the balance of power in the Middle East would shift significantly against Iran and the regime could face significant unrest after having gambled and lost. This prospect should warm the heart of even the most hawkish.
Those in Congress skeptical of the deal can help ensure that it does improve the benefits of military action. Tying acceptance of the deal to an expansion of intelligence collection, analysis and target development on the Iranian nuclear program would go a long way to achieving this. For the Obama administration, even another $ 1 billion a year for these programs would probably be a small price to pay for getting the deal. For those who hope a Republican president might use force after 2016, such an agreement on accepting the deal would ensure that the military option would be much more effective. A rare win for both Iran hawks and doves could be at hand.
Austin Long is an assistant professor, teaching security policy, at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.