Nikki Haley, US ambassador to the United Nations, said the other day that Iran had violated the spirit of the 2015 nuclear accord and that President Trump was likely not to certify Iran’s compliance with it next month. There is no legitimate reason for such a step, but if Trump—who must certify compliance every six months—takes it, he would almost certainly set in motion another nuclear crisis side by side with the one with North Korea.
Two basic facts are before us: first, that the nuclear accord is very much in the interest of all parties, the US in particular; and second, that Iran is not in violation of the agreement. Far from being “the worst deal ever negotiated”—one of those absurd Trumpian generalities—the Iran nuclear deal is a model of conflict management. While the accord doesn’t permanently denuclearize Iran, it does ensure that Iran cannot produce or test a nuclear device for at least 10 years. As a group of 29 scientists and engineers well-known for their expertise on nuclear weapons and arms control wrote in an open letter to President Obama, the agreement limits the level of enrichment of the uranium that Iran can produce, the amount of enriched uranium it can stockpile, and the number and kinds of centrifuges it can develop and operate. The agreement bans reconversion and reprocessing of reactor fuel, it requires Iran to redesign its Arak research reactor to produce far less plutonium than the original design, and specifies that spent fuel must be shipped out of the country without the plutonium being separated and before any significant quantity can be accumulated. A key result of these restrictions is that it would take Iran many months to enrich uranium for a weapon. We contrast this with the situation before the interim agreement was negotiated in Lausanne: at that time Iran had accumulated enough 20 percent enriched uranium that the required additional enrichment time for weapons use was only a few weeks.
The letter points to other innovative terms, including challenge inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities, a ban on nuclear weapon research and not simply manufacture, and verification procedures that last through 2040. Thirty-six retired admirals and generals wrote in a similar vein, pointing out that the nuclear accord “is not based on trust; the deal requires verification and tough sanctions for failure to comply.”
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is given an exceptionally intrusive role in verifying Iran’s adherence to the agreement. It has verified adherence a number of times. Iran’s ballistic missile tests since 2015 and its support of Hezbollah have nothing to do with the nuclear accord. The administration knows full well that Iran is in compliance; Trump has twice certified to that effect. Trump’s national security team, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, supports continuation of the nuclear accord. Haley’s comment that we shouldn’t pay attention to “technicalities” is simply an attempt to evade the issue, playing to Trump’s base and perhaps pitching her personal ambition to replace Tillerson. She attended a meeting of the IAEA in late August on Iran’s compliance, and is quite familiar with the fact that IAEA inspections have turned up no violations of the accord. Nor has the US provided evidence of any Iranian military sites that should be inspected for violations.
The Trump administration is simply looking for a pretext to scrap the nuclear accord, and there may well be enough votes in the Senate to bring that about if Trump chooses to make a clean break. (He could also declare Iran’s noncompliance but continue to seek enforcement of the agreement, thus avoiding Congressional action.) In either case, Iran would be free to produce enriched uranium and heavy water for plutonium, putting it back on the road to becoming a nuclear weapon state. Once Iran stops complying, expect Israel to gear up for another attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities—this time, with full US support. Trump would then find himself facing two nuclear-weapon crises without a diplomatic strategy for preventing either one from spiraling out of control.
Rather than keep threatening and sanctioning Iran—a path already shown to be totally unproductive with North Korea—the US ought to be thinking about how to improve relations. The accord gives both countries, along with the other parties (Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany), plenty of time to find common ground and essentially make the nuclear option moot. Iran wants foreign investment, recognition of its important role in a Middle East peace process, and especially respect from the United States. Offered those things, Iran’s policies in opposition to the US in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen may be open to change. That possibility needs to be tested through engagement, which is clearly preferable to pressuring Iran in ways that ensure the ascendance of Iran’s—not to mention America’s—hawks.
Echoes of Reagan: Another Nuclear Buildup
Thirty years ago Americans endured an absurd expansion of the US nuclear-weapon force under President Reagan. The announced weapons modernization program was accompanied by a huge increase in the military budget, the President’s warning to the Soviet Union that he was willing to spend it into oblivion, and crazy talk from some of his advisers about the potential to fight and win a nuclear war. So here we are evidently back to the future as the Trump administration forges ahead with nuclear “modernization,” without a set strategy for the weapons but with billions of dollars to burn.
The Nuclear Lobby
Right now, the US has about 6,800 total nuclear weapons—roughly 1,400 strategic weapons deployed in ground-, air-, and sea-based missiles, and the rest stockpiled or retired. (The Russians’ arsenal is approximately the same in total.) From any rational point of view, these weapons are far more than are necessary to deter an adversary. Submarine-launched ballistic missiles alone—920 of which are fixed on 230 invulnerable submarines, each missile having destructive power equivalent to many Hiroshimas—are sufficient to destroy an entire country and bring on nuclear winter. There simply is no legitimate basis for believing that the nuclear arsenal needs to be larger, more invulnerable, or more accurate and reliable.
Yet as Americans learned long ago, for the nuclear lobby—the pro-nuclear members of Congress, the military industries that test and produce the weapons and the means of their delivery, and the various Pentagon advisory boards, laboratories, and nuclear planners—enough is never enough. These folks can always be counted on to argue that the nuclear stockpile must be periodically revitalized to ensure readiness. And all it takes is a supposed nuclear threat—today meaning North Korea—to bolster the nuclear lobby’s case for upgrading.
The arguments against further investment in nuclear weapons are just as compelling now as they were years ago. As the US invests more in them, so will the Russians and the Chinese, reviving a nuclear arms race. Continued reliance on nukes supports pro-nuclear thinking in Pakistan, India, Israel, North Korea, and elsewhere, contributing to the potential for war by accident or design. These weapons, moreover, which have no purpose other than to deter their use by others, can be inherently destabilizing—as is the case now with a new Cruise missile (price tag: $25 billion), whose accuracy and stealth raise the possibility of a disastrous miscalculation by adversaries. At the same time, such a weapon should, but won’t, eliminate the need for ground-based ICBMs. No, say the weapons proponents: the ground-air-sea nuclear triad will remain, adding billions to the military budget.
The nuclear weapons lobby is surely delighted with Trump’s decision. The lobby was downcast when it seemed that President Obama was headed toward bringing nuclear weapons numbers down to some minimum figure. But he reversed course late in his second administration and agreed to new investments in them, apparently in order to ensure Senate approval of the “New Start” agreement with Russia in 2010. Now, the weapons manufacturers that will be responsible for Trump’s program—Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman—are assured of many more years of multibillion dollar activity.
When we think about national security in the human interest, two considerations are uppermost: the quality of life for our people and a peaceful future for the planet. As to the first, we might evaluate the cost of another nuclear-weapon modernization when matched against the urgent need to start thinking about paying for rebuilding Houston after Hurricane Harvey. The Washington Post reports (August 28) that “Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, caused $160 billion in damage and Hurricane Sandy in 2012 caused around $70 billion in damage, according to inflation-adjusted figures provided by the federal government.” “Harvey” may well cost more—even more than the full cost of Trump’s nuclear modernization program, which will easily top $125 billion. FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) reportedly has only $3.8 billion on hand; the rest of the rescue money must come from elsewhere in the federal budget. But, Texans and Louisianans, don’t count on Trump to divert a dime from the military to bail you out. (Come to think of it, abandoning the Mexico wall project would also be a welcome response to Houston’s calamity.)
The other consideration is global security while nuclear weapons are under the command of Donald Trump. In the May-June 2017 issue of Foreign Affairs, Philip Gordon offers three crisis scenarios—with China, Iran, and North Korea—that Trump might well mishandle and involve the US in war. Each potential crisis might lead a president known for recklessness, unpreparedness, and predilection for making threats to consider use of nuclear weapons. So the issue here is squarely about national security for us and for all.
Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.