Candidate Donald Trump campaigned on the promise that he would rip up the Iran nuclear deal. But now that he is president-elect, he should look hard at the realistic options to keep Iran from ever developing nuclear weapons.
Although I was strongly opposed to the deal — and wrote a book outlining why — I don’t think it’s now realistic simply to tear the pact to pieces. It was, after all, signed by several other nations, who will still stand by its terms. That means the full sanctions regime could not be restored effectively. Further, ending the agreement would entitle Iran to pursue its nuclear ambitions now rather than once the deal expires. Finally, though there is evidence of some minor violations, it appears that Iran is currently complying with the core aspects of the deal.
But neither do I agree with the 76 national security experts who have urged the president-elect simply to continue the Obama policy of accepting the deal as now understood by the signatories. That understanding would allow Iran to begin developing nuclear weapons as soon as the inspection regimes end, in a decade or so.
A far better option would be to enforce all the terms of the deal vigorously, including these unequivocal words in its Preface and Preamble: “Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop, or acquire any nuclear weapons.”
Iran bound itself to those words when it signed the agreement. The mullahs would probably argue that the words in the Preface and Preamble are merely hortatory and thus not a binding part of the pact. They could also assert that the sunset provisions in the deal itself apply to that commitment as well. But nothing in the deal authorizes Iran to develop nuclear weapons. Further, it was and is Iran’s official policy, repeatedly expressed by its leaders, that its goal in ending the restrictions is to develop peaceful nuclear technologies. Now, the mullahs may well have been lying, but whatever their collective state of mind, the Trump administration should insist that Iran be taken at the words and be bound by the language of the Preface and Preamble.
Congress also has an important role to play. To ensure that the agreement is carried out in its entirety, including the all-important reaffirmation, lawmakers should adopt the proposal New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman and I made before the deal was signed. That is, Congress should pass a resolution authorizing the American president to use force to prevent Iran from ever becoming a nuclear-weapons state.
Passage of such a law would underscore that Iran’s reaffirmation never to acquire nuclear weapons is central to US understanding of the deal. As such, it would provide both a deterrent against Iran violating that commitment and an enforcement authorization in the event it does. I am confident that there would be enough votes, both in the Senate and House, to pass such a law.
With President Trump in the Oval Office, Iran’s leadership would certainly take seriously a US threat to respond militarily if Iran does violate that reaffirmation — particularly if that declared policy is already backed by a use-of-force authorization. Thus the threat alone should provide sufficient deterrence. But if not, then the military option would become operative. This combination provides the best assurances that Iran will not obtain a nuclear arsenal.
When the deal was being considered, President Obama argued that its critics had failed to offer a better alternative. He was wrong; the proposal outlined above was just such an alternative. But Obama’s mistake can now be rectified by adopting this constructive alternative to simply accepting or tearing up the deal.
A clear statement by President Trump, backed up by Congressional action, would provide a needed backstop against the deal’s worst-case scenario — the development of a nuclear arsenal by Iran — while still preserving its benefits. Without such a firm statement of American policy, the deal as interpreted by the Obama administration will not prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. In all probability, it would merely postpone that catastrophe for about a decade while legitimating its eventual occurrence. This is an outcome President Trump should not accept.
Alan M. Dershowitz is professor emeritus of law at Harvard University and author of “The Case Against the Iran Deal.’’