Taken together, this evidence suggests that Khamenei has decided that Iran does not need to possess a nuclear weapon, at least for now. Indeed, it seems most likely that Khamenei only agreed to limits on Iran’s nuclear program because he believed that the United States would not attack Iran in the near future and so there was no immediate need for a nuclear deterrent.
Thus, if the nuclear deal evaporates, the most likely “war” that could ensue would be a struggle over the sanctions. Given the lack of Israeli capability or American intent to attack Iran, Tehran may feel little need to get a bomb quickly. A far more pressing need would be for it to erode or eliminate the sanctions that are causing real pain, and which the Iranian people desperately hope a nuclear deal will end. So Iran’s first target if the negotiations fail will be to convince China, India, Brazil, Russia, and other countries to repeal the multilateral sanctions and ignore the unilateral American sanctions.
This won’t be easy for the Iranians, but their cause will be helped mightily if they can paint the U.S. as the bad guys. That’s why it has always been critical to both sides that if the negotiations ever break down, the other side be blamed for the failure. That, not the likelihood of war or an Iranian rush to weaponize, is the most compelling near-term argument against Congress blocking a deal.
If Congress kills a deal signed by Iran, Russia, France, Britain, China, Germany, and the President of the United States, it is the United States who will be blamed for its failure, and that will make it far harder to hold the sanctions in place. Recall that in the late 1990s, the sanctions against Iraq -- all of them enacted by the Security Council under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter -- collapsed in less than two years when they lost international support, allowing Saddam Hussein access to billions of dollars in technically illicit trade. Nations that had voted for those sanctions and defended them in the past simply ignored them when international opinion concluded that the U.S., not Saddam, was to blame for the impasse. If that scenario repeats with Iran, then some years down the road, Tehran may well choose to resume its nuclear program and even field a nuclear arsenal. By then, there will be no sanctions to hamper them. In other words, the Obama administration’s claims about what will happen if there is no deal may not be as urgent as implied -- but that does not mean they’re fully wrong.
The Unknown Congressional Reaction
Despite all the uncertainties about whether a deal with Iran is possible, the smart money in Washington is betting that it is and that it will happen at some point this summer. For all of their hemming and hawing, key Iranian leaders -- including hardliners like Mohammed Ali Jafari, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard -- have publicly praised the framework agreement. That suggests that the Supreme Leader is getting all of his ducks in a row to accept a deal. Likewise, on the U.S. side, the Obama administration seems determined to get a deal. Moreover, it is important to recognize that in the case of both the interim nuclear agreement with Iran and now the new framework agreement, the administration was able to secure considerably better terms than their critics had expected -- better, too, than what the leaks in the media suggested they would be. Those are important precedents that argue that the administration may get a better final deal than most currently envision, one more acceptable to Congress and U.S. allies.
Finally, there are strong arguments for Congress allowing the deal to stand, even if grudgingly. Since voting down the deal would jeopardize the sanctions, it is unlikely that doing so would produce greater concessions from Iran in a new round of negotiations (contrary to what Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has claimed). As noted above, that means that Congress killing a nuclear deal could eventually produce one of the two specters raised by the Obama administration: either Iran builds a bomb or America goes to war to prevent it -- neither of which Congress would want to be blamed for. In addition, many centrist congressmen will be loath to take the foreign policy prerogative away from the executive on constitutional and political grounds. It’s why many predict that a final nuclear deal with Iran will get voted down initially (quite possibly with a veto-proof majority) but survive via a presidential veto because Congress then fails to muster the votes needed to override one.
The Unknown Iranian Future
If we do get a nuclear deal with Iran this summer, the uncertainties don’t end there. And that is true even if the final agreement looks exactly like the American version of the framework agreement.
The conundrum at the heart of the framework agreement is that it is actually quite a good deal for the United States and its allies -- but only for the first 10 or 15 years it is in effect. Assuming the final agreement matches the American version of the new framework, it would impose a range of important constraints that would make it hard for Iran to abandon the agreement and race quickly to build a bomb without being detected. Not impossible, but quite difficult. Moreover, during this same period, Iran would be, essentially, on probation: if it were caught violating the agreement in either a dramatic or systematic fashion, the international community would be more likely to take action against it. Certainly Iran would have to calculate as much. This failsafe isn’t perfect, and what mechanisms the U.S. will have available to snap the sanctions back in place remain badly undefined. But the circumstances could be a lot worse.
Kenneth M. Pollack is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy.