The Iranian and P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, plus Germany) negotiators in Vienna seem to be on the brink of reaching an agreement to significantly limit Iran’s nuclear program and place it under strict international monitoring. But what if they fail to bridge their differences in the final hours? Or what if the U.S. Congress scuttles a deal down the road—a less likely but still worrying outcome? Indeed, with the principle that “no deal is better than a bad deal” likely to dominate any congressional debate, it is a good moment to examine what the Middle East might look like without a nuclear deal.
Failure to reach or approve a deal would likely produce one or more of the following: an expanded Iranian nuclear program; an erosion of broad international sanctions without any benefit to regional and global security; heightened potential for military conflict; and the loss of opportunities to work on major areas of common concern to Iran and the United States.
To be sure, there are risks associated with a deal as well, including the possibility that Iran will fail to implement the agreement, resume a nuclear program once the nuclear agreement expires, or covertly continue elements of its program beyond the surveillance of the international community. There have been countless assessments of all the things that could go wrong; that’s why negotiators in Vienna are working “don’t trust and verify” measures into any conceivable final deal. But debates about any such agreement must include assessments of the risks of having no deal at all.
The first and most dangerous scenario is that Tehran could break out of the interim nuclear agreement, the Joint Plan of Action, which has essentially frozen Iran’s nuclear program for nearly two years. With no promise of lasting and more significant sanctions relief, Iran may decide to resume its nuclear enrichment program at levels that reduce the time it would need to