Iran nuclear agreement: Is a 'better deal' possible – and at what cost?

Critics say the shock of congressional rejection of the nuclear deal is a path to bring Iran back to the negotiating table. Secretary of State John Kerry calls that view 'a fantasy.' 

Andrew Harnik/AP
Secretary of State John Kerry listens while testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the impacts of the nuclear deal with Iran on Capitol Hill Wednesday.

The television ads are airing across the country, from Washington to Honolulu: The Iran nuclear deal is a “bad deal,” the ad says, before concluding, “We want a better deal.”

As Congress debates the complex international agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear program in anticipation of a September vote, the option of rejecting this deal in favor of a “better deal” appears to be catching on. On Wednesday, Rep. Grace Meng (D) of New York announced she would oppose the deal on the table, believing “the world could and should have a better deal.”

But what is the likelihood that an agreement negotiated over several years between six world powers and Iran could indeed be renegotiated and toughened up if Congress rejects the current deal and overcomes a promised presidential veto?

The deep divisions over that question come down, more than anything, to people’s perception of Iran: whether or not it is a country the United States should be entangled with in such a complex deal, whether or not it should be allowed to possess any uranium enrichment program at all.

Critics of the Iran deal say there is plenty of historical precedent for renegotiating and amending international agreements. They argue that Iran is so intent on getting a deal with the US that Tehran could be brought back to the negotiating table after the shock of a congressional rejection.

“There is an alternative to the current [deal], it is an amended deal,” says Mark Dubowitz, an international sanctions expert and executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) in Washington.

Citing nearly 80 multilateral agreements Congress has either rejected or for which it has required amendments, he says, “Congress should require the administration to renegotiate certain terms of the proposed [deal] and resubmit the amended agreement to Congress.”

But senior administration officials involved in the Iran negotiations say there is no chance the deal could be renegotiated – and they warn that instead of tighter controls on Iran’s nuclear program, rejection of the deal would very likely result in a ramped-up uranium enrichment program. That, in turn, would mean a shrinking “breakout” time for Iran to rush to produce a nuclear weapon, if it chose to, they add.

Calling the prospect of a “better deal” a “fantasy,” Secretary of State John Kerry told senators last week that those demanding a renegotiated deal, including in the TV ads he’d seen, were proffering “some sort of unicorn arrangement involving Iran’s complete capitulation” – something he said is not going to happen.

Some nonproliferation experts echo that position, saying the Iranian nuclear program was already too advanced years ago to reduce it any more than what the deal reached July 14 does.

“Sure I’d like a better deal – I’d like a pony, too, but it’s not realistic,” says Jeffrey Lewis, director of nonproliferation studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, Calif. “The most important thing now is to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon in the next 10 to 15 years, and this deal does that.”

Others are much less certain the deal blocks Iran’s paths to a nuclear weapon, but they believe a renegotiated deal could.

FDD's Mr. Dubowitz says he sees three different directions the Iran nuclear issue could take if Congress rejects the current deal and holds out for an agreement “renegotiated on better terms.”

Iran could go ahead and implement its commitments under the deal, he says. It could also “abandon its commitments” and escalate it nuclear program. Or it could try to do both, complying with certain commitments while abandoning others – and thus attempt to divide world powers while advancing its nuclear program.

But under any of those scenarios, Dubowitz says, the US could work to “persuade the Europeans to join the US” in demanding a renegotiation of key parts of the deal.

Yet many regional experts say that prospects for wooing the Europeans to join the US in pressing for a tougher deal, if Congress rejects the one now before it, are dim.

“European and Asian partners would feel frustrated and misled” in the wake of a US rejection of the deal, Jon Alterman, a Middle East expert at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the House Armed Services Committee this week. European allies would likely join countries like China and India in investing in Iran’s energy sector, he added.

“Broadly, the action would create distance between the US and the world and diminish distance between Iran and the world,” Dr. Alterman added, “after more than a decade when the reverse was the case.”       

Looming large over the calls for a return to negotiations are strong suspicions on the part of deal supporters that the “better deal” advocates really have no interest in a stronger deal at all, but instead want to thwart any US agreement with the Iranian government.

“We had a ‘better deal’ in Iraq after 1991 [following the Gulf War], there were no restrictions, inspectors could go where they wanted when they wanted, and that deal wasn’t good enough,” says Dr. Lewis, adding that “we still went to war. So really I don’t believe them when they say they just want a ‘better deal’ this time.”

Other doubters of the sincerity of the seekers of a “better deal” say it’s telling to note that the sponsor of the TV ad campaign demanding a better deal is a group called Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran, which is backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel organization lobbying Congress hard for the deal’s defeat.

“There really is no ‘better deal’ for [such critics] in the sense of an agreement that leaves any nuclear program in the hands of the current Iranian government,” Lewis says. “Any deal is bad because it means living with the Islamic Republic.”

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