Q&A with Paul Bracken: Putting the Iran nuclear deal in context

test test

The United States and five other world powers recently reached an agreement with Iran that would limit the Islamic republic’s nuclear capability in exchange for lifting sanctions that have crippled the country’s economy.

Among its terms, the deal would provide international inspectors increased access to Iran’s nuclear facilities, reduce Iran’s stockpiles of low-enriched uranium to below bomb-making levels for 15 years; significantly cut Iran’s number of centrifuges for enriching uranium; and require Iran to overhaul the plutonium plant at Arak so that it cannot produce weapons-grade material. 

President Barack Obama says that deal will prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and improve U.S. and global security. Opponents argue that the deal will ultimately empower Iran by lifting oil and financial sanctions while leaving portions of its nuclear program in place.

Congress has 60 days to review the nuclear pact. Obama has vowed to veto any legislation rejecting the deal.

Paul Bracken, a Yale professor of management and political science, is a leading international security strategist and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Bracken’s most recent book, “The Second Nuclear Age,” was published in 2012.  He spoke with YaleNews about the nuclear deal.

What is your overall assessment of the deal?

I think it is a good deal from a narrow point of view, but it will not achieve the goal of preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon or slowing down the spread of nuclear weapons proliferation more broadly.

I think that the team that negotiated it probably did get the best deal they could.

What are its weaknesses?

The weaknesses in the short term, it seems to me, are few. I was surprised, as were many people, by how much they got from Iran in terms of inspections, getting rid of centrifuges, and modifying certain reactors that could be used for these purposes. Longer term, what the deal did not do, and could not do — no deal could — is to alter the strategic environment of the Middle East, which is quite dangerous. This is the world that Iran lives in, and it will consider its options in terms of that environment.

What do I mean by that? I mean a couple of things: First, you have a 20-year history of the United States and others trying to intervene in Iranian affairs, killing their scientists, introducing cyber warfare attacks onto their computer systems. When Iran looks in its immediate neighborhood, it sees something like 300,000 people killed in the civil war in Syria, and it sees a new Sunni coalition of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and a de facto member, Israel, joining forces. It’s a pretty dangerous environment.

Paul Bracken

When I look at the deal, one of the things I ask is: What is the residual capability that survives the deal? Here, in terms of Iran’s nuclear research program and also its nuclear weapons program, most of that is untouched. There are some tactical concessions that Iran has agreed to, cutting back the number of centrifuges, for example, or storing a lower amount of enriched uranium, but my view is that these keep the structure and the human capital and the systems in place after the deal. When you put largely untouched nuclear capability into the context of the dangerous Middle East environment, I think it will accelerate Iran’s interest in getting a nuclear weapon.

Advocates of the deal argue that it will delay Iran’s ability to obtain a nuclear weapon 20 to 25 years. Is that realistic?

I don’t think delays will come about from the technical features of the agreement, but rather from Iran’s decisions. They probably were, even in the absence of an agreement, several years from obtaining a useable nuclear weapon. The Iranians would have moderated that behavior dependent on the pressure on them. I think that they will moderate their behavior to not openly flaunt the deal for a year or two.

How will the lifting of sanctions affect the Iranian regime?

Nobody knows for sure. Advocates and opponents of the agreement will emphasize different features.

What we have to go on is 20 years of Iran not trusting the United States or Israel. I think that’s very unlikely to change. So they’ll put some of these resources into continuing what they’ve been doing, but my view is that they’ve muted their support for terrorism and other features in the past two or three years anyway.  They’re likely to be in a period of good behavior because they don’t want the deal rolled back.  This presumes that it survives the political review in Tehran and, frankly, Washington. What I’m really saying is that this is an arms control agreement and they will look upon it as a mask for strategy.

How does it differ from arms deals negotiated during the Cold War?

It differs in a really fundamental way in that the larger purpose of the Cold War agreements was to build some level of trust on a narrow set of issues between the superpowers. For example, trust that the other would not engage in surprise attack; trust that the other would not engage in a dramatic escalation. Dramatic escalations were fine, but they had to be signaled beforehand. The absence of any signaling apparatus and the very low levels of trust between Washington and Tehran to me are the distinguishing features, and those are issues that are impossible to negotiate in a written contract.

What were the alternatives to this deal?

There was a large set of alternatives that were not sufficiently explored, in my view. Most prominent would be for the United States to walk away from the negotiations and keep the sanctions regime in place on all fronts. Another set of options was to possibly escalate pressure on Iran — not through military strikes but something short of that, like information warfare attacks like Stuxnet.

I think in this instance the U.S. was self-deterred. We didn’t want to do those things. They would hurt us more than they would hurt Iran. Think of the fallout in particular over cyber attacks, which have become extremely controversial. The cyber attacks that the U.S. apparently did support spilled over onto a lot of companies. The Chinese has accelerated their cyber attacks on the United States. They may have done this anyway, but the argument now is whether the U.S. started offensive cyber attacks that others, like China and Russia, have now copied.  

Cyber warfare is just one example. A complete list of options could always include an Israeli military attack or a U.S. military attack. I would not support those. Clearly, the administration did not support those.

Why not support a military attack?

Because it would deepen U.S. involvement into what’s been a 12-year, continuous war in the Middle East, which distracts the Defense Department from other needs around the world. And then beyond that it distracts the U.S. government from other needs at home. 

I think the chance of a U.S. attack on Iran is zero, and part of the negotiations was to signal to Iran that that was the case in order to build trust. I don’t know that it worked yet. I think the chances of an Israeli attack on Iran are also zero.

Why would Iran want a nuclear weapon given the risk and expense of pursuing them?

It’s a good question, particularly coming in the United States where there is a view in the non-governmental organization and academic communities that nuclear weapons are more trouble than they’re worth and dangerous and we should eliminate them. I fully agree. However, other countries don’t see it that way. For example, North Korea, China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Iran, Israel, France, Great Britain, and, frankly, the United States — the Department of Defense — don’t see it that way. 

I think the main reason Iran would want a nuclear deterrent is to stop U.S. strong-arm tactics from coercing it, possibly to prevent Israel from coercing it, and to have an escalation option should Iran start to fall apart the way Syria has or the way many people think North Korea could. There would be a great reluctance for an outside major power to intervene if it meant that they were interfering in a nuclear weapons state’s internal affairs — that there could be loss of physical control of firing the nuclear weapons or that there would be a nuclear coup d’état. If you look at the experience of North Korea, the U.S. has proceeded very gingerly there compared to what we’ve done with Iran or Iraq, which we only thought had chemical weapons, and they didn’t even have those.

Do you think the Iranian regime would actually use a nuclear weapon? Wouldn’t that trigger its destruction?

It’s a good point except that the United States used the bomb every single day in the Cold War for deterrence in Europe, where we had six divisions and the Soviets had 56 divisions. If you mean firing the bomb, I think there is a substantial deterrence against doing that, but I could imagine Iran staging a series of nuclear crises — Cuban missile crises, if you will — to instill a palpable terror in the Israeli population. To force them to consider evacuating their cities, constantly turning on air raid sirens, having children practice under the desk civil defense exercises because Israeli satellites detect two or three Iranian missiles driving around the countryside.

They’ve already had a major impact on Israel, which has introduced a whole new strategic dimension of its nuclear force by buying a set of submarines as nuclear weapons carriers, and that’s quite new for Israel — this multi-billion-dollar cost.

So there’s many ways to use nuclear weapons. All I’m suggesting is that at a minimum they would be used like they were used in the Cold War, which was extensively. You don’t have to fire a nuclear weapon to use it.

Is there reason to fear that Iran will use the lifting of sanctions and the easing of the arms embargo to strengthen its conventional military?

I think most analysts would be surprised if they did not do that. Some people argue that the Iranian regime and the Ayatollah are under immense pressure from the middle classes of Iran to decentralize the regime and open up the economy. I think that’s true, but they’ve successfully resisted that pressure for a long time, and they can open up the economy gradually. The biggest negative to come from this negotiation is the increase in the resources that they can put into their military program and their civilian economy. Give a third to the military and two-thirds to the civilians. That will keep both happy. It’s probably what will happen.

Could the fight against ISIS, a mutual enemy, provide an opportunity to build trust between the U.S. and Iran?

The administration’s policy is to try to find ways to build trust with Iran, and one method was to give sanctions relief early on to get them to the negotiating table; another is to have limited cooperation on defeating ISIS but we’re in the early stages of that, and the cultures here are very different. It took us a long time to figure out how to live with the Russians. Only until recently have we done any positive signaling with Iran — it’s all been “let’s bash them on the head.” And the Iranians viewed the war in Iraq as a staging ground for the next round against them.

Didn’t the war in Iraq empower Iran by removing a check on its power?

I think that’s what happened, but that was an oversight by the strategic elites who ran the United States’ policy. They didn’t fully think through what they were doing. At bottom, they believed that a move toward democracy and liberalization was the inevitable future development. They thought that that would offset the Sunni-Shia divide. They’re not the only ones guilty of that. The Obama administration’s policy of going over the heads of authoritarian governments in Egypt and Syria to the people also projected a belief that a movement toward democracy would spring up inevitably. It’s a nice idea; it just didn’t work.

Is it simply the case that the United States will continuously be dealing with Iran’s nuclear capability for years and years to come?

I think that’s very likely, and more broadly, we’re going to be increasingly living in a world where the question isn’t preventing a second nuclear age but managing a second nuclear age. It isn’t just Iran. It’s China and Russia and others. In many ways, nuclear weapons are more deeply imbedded now than during the Cold War because then we could just tell countries, “You can’t go nuclear because we won’t let you.” But that doesn’t work once countries already have the weapons.

Are there other countries you suspect are looking to acquire nuclear weapons?

Other potential nuclear proliferators include Saudi Arabia and Turkey. I would add Egypt and Algeria to the list, but that would be 10 years down the road. One also has to think of Brazil and Japan. One leader, one person, can decide the whole thing.

Illustration via Shutterstock.

Arts & Humanities

Campus & Community


Media Contact

Mike Cummings: [email protected], 203-432-9548