A New Deal for Iran

The GOP sweep in the 2016 election means that the US approach to Iran will probably change. Obama’s “Iran Deal” has been subject to naivety on one extreme side and rumor-mongering on the other.

Many opponents of Obama’s deal, formally titled the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), say “we want a deal, but not this deal; this is a bad deal.” We could argue about whether that statement is accurate, but the GOP doesn’t care what I think; we should assume they will follow through on their hatred of the JCPOA.

If the current deal is bad, what would a better deal look like? How do we bring Iran back to the negotiating table?

I don’t even know if I’m advocating for a position, I’m just trying to lay out the facts as I see them to try to make people see how murky, risky, and uncertain this situation actually is.


My briefest summary of what has happened so far

U.S. and Europe impose economic sanctions, demanding Iran allow inspectors into their facilities to make sure they are not weaponizing Uranium. After many negotiations, a deal is reached which kind of does that, with some caveats of unclear effect, and sanctions are released.

Types of Nuclear Material

To build an atomic bomb, one usually needs plutonium or highly purified uranium-235 (U-235). Both of these are very rare in nature. Plutonium can be synthesized in an otherwise peaceful nuclear reactor. Trace amounts of natural U-235 (less than 1%) are typically separated out of more common and benign U-238, using centrifuges, and then concentrated together, over and over again, achieving higher levels of purity, a process called “enrichment.” U-235 enriched to 90% purity is considered “weaponized.” A uranium bomb requires 90% purity of U-235 in order to explode properly.

U-235 at less than 90% purity has some peaceful purposes, including as ship fuel, producing certain medical isotopes, certain physics research, and production of electricity, although the latter is possible with U-238.

The Most Important Caveat

It might anger some people to hear this, but we don’t actually have intel that there is weaponization occurring. All of this controversy is based on the precaution that Iran might be trying to weaponize uranium, and it is important to keep this in perspective when considering our options. There is no proof of 90% enrichment. Believe me, if there were, we’d be hearing about it, if not from the U.S. government, then from Israel. Even Netanyahu’s tour here was couched in terms of “breakout time” and what might happen, and offered no evidence of weapon-level enrichment, not from espionage, aerial reconnaissance, hacking, nothing. He did not even claim to have “secret” evidence, which is to his credit, because that kind of B.S. is becoming stock-in-trade of the post-fact era.
According to many experts, enrichment is not linear: Iran’s acknowledged 20 percent enrichment achieves 90% of the work needed to get to 90% enrichment.

Bibi at the U.N. (Courtesy of Reuters)

It does make sense that the Iranians would be trying to get to 90% purity and build a bomb for deterrence, given what happened to two of their neighbors:


But it made a lot of sense that Saddam was trying, too. Can you imagine if, for the second time in two decades, (actually the third in three decades) the U.S. went to war with a country rhyming with “Ira-” over weapons that turned out not to exist?

It’s worth considering that this regime has had almost 40 years to develop a nuclear weapon if it really wanted to, and yet they have not. It does not take that long. I would strongly recommend waiting for direct evidence. But what if that evidence is overplayed, or outright fabricated? We’ve seen it before, and our incoming president has a tenuous relationship with intelligence agencies. And I guarantee that any evidence presented will be messily questioned (which it ought to be, all things considered).


Most people agree on the following:

Goal 1: Iran does not develop nuclear weapons.

Why not? A few possibilities:

Scenario A) North Korea 2: Atomic Boogaloo

Even if Iran develops nuclear weapons and never, ever uses them, the mere fact that it has them would grant it admission to the exclusive deterrence club, those nuclear-armed nations which are rarely, attacked by other nations out of fear of escalation. These nations can thus can get away with (relatively) small acts of sabotage, terrorism or provo-cation that would otherwise bring retaliation.

In Iran’s case, most expect this to manifest through proxies, especially Hezbollah and the various Shi’a militias of Iraq, and probably an effort to resuscitate the Assad regime in Syria as well.

Scenario B) The First Use Nightmare

As I outlined in a recent post, it doesn’t make sense for anyone to actually use nuclear weapons first, especially not a nation in a technologically inferior position.

For a successful missile strike (one that they survive the aftermath of), they would need enough warheads to overwhelm interception systems and still do the necessary level of damage to prevent retaliation. They would need to be able to strike quickly enough to prevent retaliation. They would need their own interception system to deal with any land-based missile systems that survive their attack, as well as the submarine-based ones that would certainly survive. These conditions cannot be satisfied in the real world; for them to attempt a missile strike would be suicide, and they know it.

Even handing a device off to terrorists wouldn’t fool anyone (“Gee, where did they get that?”). It would also fail to accomplish any strategic objective, unless it were a gargantuan, multi-target undertaking that somehow slipped through every crack in our ever-growing surveillance state. Even then, there’s no endgame where they escape counter-attack. Using a third party also entails a small risk that they will not behave as requested, and if there’s a nuclear bomb involved, that’s also a big deal.

If the Iranians successfully developed a bomb, I do think something more like scenario A) would be much more likely, but I understand that “probably” is small comfort to someone living in, say, Israel. Scenario B) is irrational from an Iranian perspective, but people are capable of being irrational.

Scenario A/B 1/2) Middle East Arms Race

Whatever Iran’s first-use disposition, it would suit its rivals well to arm themselves. Saudi Arabia is a prime candidate, but many of the wealthier gulf states could make an effort if they felt a need. Not only does this volatile region become held together only by the threat of Armageddon, but the risk increases that one of these weapons could be stolen. Frankly, it’s amazing it hasn’t already happened in Pakistan.

Goal 2: Force is used as little as possible, without compromising Goal 1.

The reasons for this should be obvious. Unnecessary killing is bad. Even if you don’t care about Iranian lives, and love to watch bombs fall on the tee-vee, a war would cost some American lives too, and it’s worth making sure that such a loss is necessary. War is expensive. False positives impact our credibility.

Methods (In Order of Escalation)

Stuxnet 2.0

A repeat use of a computer virus to undermine Iranian efforts. Whether such a thing could even occur again depends on many things on the end of Western intelligence: knowledge of the hardware and software being used in Iranian facilities, knowledge of sufficient zero-day exploits to create another virus that can go undetected and successfully reach the systems in question, and the ability to phish Iranian officials, again, into allowing the virus into their network.


Pursuant to Goal 2, using force as little as possible, this should be the first option. The point is to make sure facilities aren’t weaponizing uranium or plutonium. This can be achieved cheaply and humanely by having a team just go look at it, so long as they are trustworthy and have proper access (that’s the hard part). Inspection is impossible without consent via agreement.

I wouldn’t recommend any “self-inspections,” even limited to select facilities. This is one of the most suspect provisions of the JCPOA/IAEA side agreements.

What if there’s a secret facility we don’t know about? I discuss this possibility under the next option.

If a deal is not reached and they don’t allow inspectors, it creates a “what are they hiding?” argument that will permeate the discussion until the next option is pursued:

Surgical Strikes

This is where you drop bombs and missiles on an enrichment facility, or maybe even insert special forces, in order to stop its operation.

If a given facility is deep enough underground, this can be difficult. We have bombs designed specifically to penetrate underground, but there are limits to how far they can go.

You can’t target a facility if you don’t even know it exists. This creates a strategic risk with this option: what if we “miss a spot,” and there remains an operational facility that we don’t know about? Even more so than under the “inspectors” option, because we would have demonstrated a willingness to use force, Iran would then have every incentive to go full steam ahead with production in order to establish real deterrence, before they go the way of Saddam. And if they made that attempt, we may or may not discover it before they succeed. They were able to hide the facility at Fordow for a very long time.

And fear of this, I suspect, would lead inexorably to the next option, perhaps even if they cave and allow inspectors:

Operation Iranian Freedom

This is Shock and Awe, Trump style, so just imagine (maybe we can equip our fighter jets with red-white-and-blue chemtrails, spraying something that violates the Geneva Convention).

This would be by far the most expensive option, in terms of money spent and lives lost.

Assuming the initial combat operations are about as breezy as they were in Iraq and Afghanistan, there still remains an occupation and reconstruction period.

On the “plus” side, Iran is less riven by sectarian differences than Iraq, and more accustomed to centralized authority than Afghanistan. It also has some degree of existing regime opposition, and a burgeoning youth demographic that isn’t bound to the status quo.

On the downside, Iran has a larger land area to occupy and a larger population to “pacify” than Iraq and Afghanistan combined. It also combines some of the worst geographical features of both previous occupations: dense urban centers and rough mountain terrain, which would allow trained fighters to blend in and conduct guerrilla attacks, something that’s been on their mind for over a decade.

All this to say nothing of the losses to the Iranian people.


How do we get Iran to re-negotiate after they were satisfied with Obama’s deal? None of the below choices are mutually exclusive.

Carrot: Sanctions

Financial Sanctions

Freezing Iranian assets stored in U.S. and European banks, and various restrictions on companies doing business with Iranian government banks, or Iranian private banks. This stuff is complicated, and I’m not going to pretend like I understand all of it, but the idea is supposed to be: “you get these nice things back when you cooperate,” or, “that’s a nice struggling economy you’ve got there, it would be a shame if something were to happen to its monetary liquidity.”

A quick aside on this: it bothers me when people say that by lifting financial sanctions the first time, we “gave” Iran $150 billion. This makes it sound like the U.S. government paid them that much money. We unfroze money that they already had in the bank. If you think that we didn’t get enough in exchange for that courtesy, though, that’s a worthwhile discussion. And there may have been other, lesser monies more literally “given,” but I’ve seen arguments to the contrary as well.

This is the important thing to remember if financial sanctions are re-applied: if the Iranians eventually agree to a tougher deal, *they will get their money back,* because that was the whole point of taking their money away.

Trade Sanctions

Restricting companies from doing business with the Iranian government or Iranian companies. There is a snag here at this point: the Europeans will be reluctant to impose sanctions again. Europe is a much bigger chunk of Iran’s trade than the U.S. is, which is only natural because of how much closer together they are, and since the combined E.U. market is slightly larger overall than the U.S. market. This makes them a vital piece of the puzzle. I’ve compiled the difference into a handy graph:

Imports/exports reversed to show Iranian perspective, based on available data from US Census Bureau and European Commission Director-General for Trade

That big dip in the green line is the beginning of E.U. sanctions on Iran. I didn’t bother converting the currencies because the exchange rate would actually make the difference even larger, but this data makes the point well enough: E.U. trade with Iran dwarfs U.S. trade with Iran. At this scale, one can barely even perceive the 2009 dip from U.S. sanctions. 2016 E.U. trade data is not yet available, but it should be expected to be significantly higher than 2015 because of the eased sanctions.

One could argue that it wouldn’t be such a drastic difference if we lifted our sanctions, and this increases our leverage, but if you’re a hard-liner, is there any scenario short of a different Iranian regime where you’d actually be comfortable with the U.S. freely trading with Iran? I don’t think it’s something that would realistically be offered or would get past a G.O.P. Congress.

Obama and Kerry had to twist arms to get the Europeans on board with sanctions before the JCPOA was negotiated, because it hurts European business too. But even if you think Trump has some magic Art of the Deal to pull out, the fact remains that the Europeans were, by and large, satisfied with the JCPOA, and eager to lift the sanctions once a deal was negotiated. In order for sanctions to be effective, then leverage then must be exerted not only on the Iranians, but on the Europeans to get them to exert leverage on the Iranians.

One can only hope that the whole thing about withdrawing protection from underfunding NATO countries was a masterful 4D chess move to use as leverage to swing the Europeans against Iran (I imagine, like most “4D chess,” it will wind up being used as such ad hoc, but was not planned so from the start).

On our end, it should be relatively easy for the GOP majority to pass a new round of sanctions if they wished to scrap the current deal. But it would be unwise to do so without a broader plan, because U.S. economic leverage over Iran is limited. If you dig through that U.S. Census dataset I linked under the graph (don’t worry, I dug for you) you’ll see that Iranian exports to the U.S. only passed $1bn/year once, in 1987. They are completely accustomed to not selling in the U.S. A new round of sanctions from just the U.S. would produce no economic shock in Iran, just prideful outrage.

The new administration may have opportunities for cooperation with the Russians on sanctions, but it’s too early to say much more than that.

Stick: Just Straight-Up Threaten Them

Even Obama’s team suggested “all options” to be on the table in terms of dealing with a breach-of-agreement, but people didn’t take him very seriously because he ultimately lacked “escalation dominance;” that is, he didn’t care enough, his opening demand was low, and he was unwilling to walk away without a deal.

Grim though it be, Trump’s volatility may allow him to effectively conduct gunboat diplomacy in a way Obama could not.

The whole thing, in the end, resembles the Melian dialogue from Thucydides. Once you get past some of the archaic language, the whole thing is rather chilling: “we don’t care what’s fair (like how we possess WMDs and allow certain other nations to violate the Non-Proliferation Treaty because we like them better), do what we say or we will destroy you.”


If you’ve read this far, you’re a real trooper. This thing ballooned way longer than I intended, but I covered every corner I could think of. I welcome polite, constructive comments, and will respond to such in good faith.

Edits: Re-ordered “Inspectors” and “Stuxnet 2.0” subsections to make more sense.


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