U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, U.S. Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, and staff watch as U.S. President Barack Obama speaks on the status of the Iran nuclear program talks, April 2, 2015.
Brendan Smialowski / Reuters

Ultimately, the success of the Iran nuclear negotiations will not be determined by this week’s agreement or the signing of a final accord in June. Rather, it will depend on the agreement’s endurance in the years that follow. To keep Tehran on the straight and narrow, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors will expand visits to declared nuclear sites and attempt to gain access to suspect locations. The world’s spy agencies will do their best to ferret out real threats from false information. All that attention, the world hopes, will insure that Tehran never wanders over the proliferation edge. 

Unfortunately, that aspiration is at odds with Tehran’s long history of nuclear prevarication. And this raises a question: How should the international community respond if Iran cheats? According to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the recent framework deal calls for sanctions to “snap back” on Iran should the country break its word. But there is little historic proof that sanctions work to enforce arms control in the long run. Nor is there evidence that the glue that once held superpower proliferation in check will work in the Iran case. Rather, what is required is an enforcement template that would make the costs of cheating so onerous that the regime would think twice. 

Of the many arms control treaties Washington and Moscow entered into during the Cold War, enforcement had little to do with sanctions. Instead, mutual interest in restraining the costly arms competition—coupled with recognition that each side could use tit-for-tat in response to cheating—largely kept the parties tied to each other. Both countries' depth of defense added insurance. The result? Despite periodic dustups about Moscow’s noncompliance over nuclear testing, a missile tracking radar deployment, and so on, the heart of the treaties held. 

Although sanctions were not the key to superpower arms control, they became the essence of U.S. attempts to stop several countries from getting the bomb. But that strategy largely failed. Washington’s unilateral cut off of military and economic assistance to India and Pakistan had little impact. Its threat to halt military aid to Israel did not move Jerusalem. Neither did far more intense international steps to isolate North Korea. Indeed, Pyongyang seemed to relish the isolation. Success came only in Taiwan, where Washington leveraged its security umbrella to force Taipei to give up its secret nuclear program. The United States, needless to say, has no such pull over Tehran. 

But neither can United States or its negotiating partners (the P5+1) turn to tit-for-tat to prevent an Iranian nuclear breakout. Five of the six partners already have nuclear weapons, so there is not much chance of them responding to an Iranian breakout in kind. But regionally, Israel could pull its bomb out of the basement and Saudi Arabia could cash in its past financial support for Pakistan’s weapons program by asking Islamabad to kick in a bomb or two. The result would be an already unstable Middle East now on nuclear hair trigger. As for sanctions, they may have been instrumental in bringing Tehran to the bargaining table, but they won’t force compliance with a P5+1 agreement. 

Relieving Tehran of any misconception that it can game its way to nuclear weapons requires a commitment to an enforcement plan that is, if not endorsed by the UN Security Council, then backed by an alliance of the willing. For example, were the IAEA to find Iran in noncompliance of the P5+1 agreement, a nonproliferation security template that was agreed upon in advance would be set in motion. Tehran would have only a small window in which to roll back suspicious activities to avoid more punishing consequences.

In week one, the Security Council or the alliance of the willing would demand that Iran verifiably reverse itself within no more than two weeks. Failure to comply would result in week three’s suspension of all international commerce to isolate Iran’s economy marking the beginning of a very condensed punitive and messaging campaign that would signal the international community’s seriousness and resolve. Week five would bring the cessation of all commercial air and maritime travel to Iran to further isolate. In week seven, the partners would implement a Cuban missile crisis–like naval and air blockade to quarantine the country. Then, in week nine, the United States would lead air strikes to destroy all suspected nuclear sites (with additional attacks on other strategic points) until Tehran opened its territory to international inspectors authorized to eliminate all nuclear contraband. This would mimic the successful path used to eliminate Iraq’s WMD after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. 

A pipe dream? That depends on how committed the international community is to preventing Iran from becoming the twenty-first century’s first new nuclear weapons state. If serious, the community must have an action plan in place that will leave Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei no doubt about the consequences, first to deter violations and then push them back if need be. The alternative—allowing ad hocery to substitute for planning—allows Tehran to drive the agenda and bank on the hope that it can manipulate the players to buy more time to get the bomb. That is an outcome the international community can ill afford and one the nonproliferation template might well prevent.

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  • BENNETT RAMBERG served as a policy analyst in the Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs in the George H.W. Bush administration. He is the author of, among other books, Nuclear Power Plants as Weapons for the Enemy.
  • More By Bennett Ramberg