There are historical precedents to justify current American confidence that the treaty with Iran will prevent it from going nuclear. In fact, Iran itself provides the most important precedents. Three factors have in the past caused Iran to curtail its nuclear weapons programs: high likelihood of exposure, belief the United States would destroy their weapons programs, and fear that military conflict with the United States would result in regime change in Iran. I cede the point that the Obama Administration is not utilizing at least two of these three factors, but all three remain available and should all be employed when the nuclear agreement goes into effect. Utilizing these proven tools—which means reestablishing deterrence of Iran—would provide confidence Iran will not continue its nuclear weapons program.
After the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 with the intent of preventing Iraq continuing to develop and stockpile weapons of mass destruction, according to the 2008 National Intelligence Estimate, Iran stopped work on its nuclear weapons programs in 2003. The Iranian government even wrote President Bush offering to negotiate the type of agreement recently reached. It is the only time the Iranian government made offers of arms limitation, rather than reluctantly agreeing to generous offers made by us. Work on the nuclear weapons programs only recommenced when the invasion of Iraq bogged down and the United States started questioning the value of military force and our ability to successfully impose regime change. That strongly suggests the government of Iran feared a similar fate to Saddam Hussein. Restoring Iranian concern—reestablishing the use of military force and threat of regime change as deterrents—will be important in constraining the choices Iran’s leaders make.
Verification provisions are the difference between a gentlemen’s agreement and an arms control agreement. Without verification, there is no control beyond the honor of the contracting parties. Every arms control agreement that has actually prevented proliferation contained explicit protocols outlining how the obligations of the parties would be verified: counting delivery systems in strategic nuclear agreements, agreed notification timelines in the Conventional Forces in Europe agreements. Verification provisions in the Iran agreement are commendably detailed, and we have the means to collect the information necessary to confidence we will know what Iran is doing and they will face a high risk of exposure. Other American governments have withdrawn from arms limits and treaties when they determined them no longer in our interests: Reagan and the SALT II limits, Bush and the ABM treaty.
The structure of the so-called snap back provisions gives incentives to Iran for cheating at the margins and disincentives to the United States for forcing penalties, since re-imposition of sanctions would result in Iran withdrawing from the accord—and lacking airtight, publicly understandable proof would allow other signatories not to restart their sanctions. So as with restoring the deterrents of military force and regime change, the credibility of the President is paramount. By which I mean to say that President Obama neither has nor can inspire confidence that Iran will not go nuclear, but future American presidents can.