Brendan Smialowski / Reuters 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.

Deal or no Deal?

Why Washington Should Have a Backup Plan

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

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