After Iran, can the US lead on arms control?

By Ariane Tabatabai | September 11, 2015

To the great relief of many and the consternation of others, the US Congress failed to derail the new nuclear accord with Iran, meaning that the deal can go forward. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as it is known, will have a number of implications for Iran’s economy, Middle East stability, and global nuclear nonproliferation. But the last several months of internal US wrangling bode ill for the future of the United States as a leader on arms control and nonproliferation.

The agreement between six world powers and Iran to limit the latter’s nuclear development is, to be sure, a major achievement for the United States: Under Washington’s political and technical leadership, the deal brings Tehran into compliance with the global nonproliferation regime without a single shot being fired. While the negotiations showed Washington’s willingness and ability to lead a multilateral arms control effort, though, the deal’s convoluted and uncertain path to Congressional acceptance has broad implications for the United States’ ability to enter arms control agreements in the future.

A major stake in arms control. Since the advent of the nuclear age, the United States has been a leader in global arms control and nonproliferation. Washington concluded a number of such bilateral agreements with the Soviet Union and later Russia, and was involved in the Six-Party Talks to curb North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. The United States engages in these efforts because of two major national security priorities: to ensure that non-nuclear states don’t develop a nuclear capability, and to limit the number of warheads that nuclear-armed states acquire. Both of these goals are important because nuclear weapons can pose a direct threat to the United States and threaten US strategic interests abroad. The first goal is additionally important because once a country develops a nuclear capability, it gains a bargaining chip and can extract favors and benefits from Washington and the international community. North Korea is emboldened by the fact that it is sitting on approximately ten nuclear warheads. Likewise, US policy toward Pakistan might look very different if Islamabad didn’t have a fast-growing nuclear arsenal.

With so much at stake, it’s in the United States’ interest to continue to be able to lead on arms control. Not every effort will necessarily succeed: When the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Great Britain, Russia, and the United States) and Iran first took a stab at negotiating a nuclear deal between 2003 and 2005, President Mohammad Khatami’s Iran was willing to make certain concessions, but the US administration of George W. Bush didn’t see them as sufficient. Hence, when Washington began to lead the process, replacing European powers in that role, the negotiations reached a dead end. It was several years before the two parties would sit across the table from one another again. When they did, the United States led efforts again—this time under President Barack Obama—on the understanding that the US 2005 position was not a constructive place to begin. Making progress was difficult while Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was still in power; his representatives, led by the hardliner Saeed Jalili, didn’t negotiate in good faith. But with the election of President Hassan Rouhani and the appointment of Foreign Minister Javad Zarif as the chief negotiator, things started to change. Tehran agreed to make concessions and the two sides began to negotiate openly, seriously, and in good faith. While Iran was sitting across the table from P5+1, all negotiating parties knew that the real players were in fact Washington and Tehran.

Washington had galvanized the international community to impose sanctions on the Islamic Republic, which ultimately helped bring it back to the negotiating table. The United States also led diplomatic efforts to push Iran back into compliance with the global nuclear nonproliferation regime. Zarif and Kerry spent countless hours in bilateral meetings, as did their teams. And US scientific expertise—grown from a vast network of national labs and top-tier higher education programs—was important to finding solutions to technical challenges.

The underminers. Throughout the negotiations, politicians and pundits in the United States warned against what they saw as an emerging “bad” deal. Some members of Congress vowed to derail the process and reject the agreement altogether. There were several reasons for the heated domestic debate in the United States, ranging from general political polarization to a fundamental distrust of the Islamic Republic. And, of course, Americans had reason to fear being burned: The 1994 Agreed Framework  between North Korea and the United States, in which Pyongyang agreed to freeze its nuclear program in exchange for energy aid, collapsed in 2002 following the unveiling of the North Korean enrichment program. Even when arms control and nonproliferation treaties and agreements don’t collapse entirely, states do cheat or fail to comply.

Still, it was remarkable to watch the level of contention escalate to new levels when a number of senators led by Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton wrote an open letter  to the leaders of the Islamic Republic, asserting that a future US administration could undo any agreement. Some GOP presidential candidates have said repeatedly that they would revoke it.

In the United States, these discussions were viewed as a normal part of the democratic process. But in other parts of the world, especially European capitals, the drama was viewed with a lot of concern. The United States already lacked credibility as a multilateral leader following its choice to disregard international law and its allies’ wishes in 2003 when it invaded Iraq. So when US politicians threatened to derail an agreement that their own government had negotiated over years—one with the potential to solve one of the greatest current challenges to international security—Washington’s credibility as a potential multilateral leader fell further. While much of the US discussion focused on the idea that Washington was ignoring its allies in the Middle East, its European allies were puzzled that so much of the discourse completely ignored their considerations. In the days leading to the final agreement in July, while traveling to Continental capitals for various briefings, I had to decrypt US politics for Europeans as much as I had to decrypt the Islamic Republic’s rhetoric and actions. Many high-level European experts and officials simply didn’t know what to make of the push and pull between the White House and Congress. For them the democratic process is important, but when one branch challenges the other to the point of threatening to undo a multilateral agreement, they see not democracy but disorganization.

These recent months of domestic wrangling could have grave implications for future arms control and nonproliferation efforts. This time, the US president was ultimately able to win Congressional approval for the deal his administration negotiated. But Congress made it so difficult that internationally, the office of the US president may no longer be viewed as capable of striking an agreement and upholding it. Other countries have to be able to expect some level of predictability—otherwise, why follow the US lead on sanctions or any other multilateral regime?

Undermining the US president’s ability to conduct foreign policy sets a dangerous precedent, signaling weakness to adversaries and allies alike. If the United States wants to remain a global leader on nonproliferation and arms control, it needs to maintain its credibility—which it can’t do if Congress, acting outside of its mandate, won’t let the president enter agreements without dragging him through the dirt.

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