In several days, President Donald Trump will almost certainly refuse to certify that Iran is complying with its obligations under the nuclear deal. While this doesn’t amount to walking away from the agreement, it certainly places it in peril.
The deal’s critics focus on two central points: expiration dates and bad behavior. The first point underscores concerns that elements of the agreement, or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), expire in 10 to 15 years, after which limits on Iran’s uranium enrichment capability go away. The second point highlights Iran’s continued destabilizing activities, including ballistic missile development and support for surrogates and proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen.
These questions are real. But for us, two former Pentagon officials in the Bush and Obama administrations who worked on Iran and the broader Middle East, today’s debates sound almost quaint compared to the questions we were grappling with in those years. These days, we cannot forget where America was before the breakthroughs of 2013 and 2015, which first froze the Iranian nuclear program and then rolled it back.
The fundamental question we faced while working at the Pentagon was what to do if the president of the United States had to make a terrible choice of living with a nuclear-armed Iran or taking military action. This was not theoretical—Iran’s nuclear program was making progress. By 2013, it had enough enriched uranium for a small nuclear arsenal of roughly six to eight bombs. And if it chose to remove any final restraints and “dash” for a weapon, it would take one to two months for it to possess enough highly enriched uranium to build a nuclear weapon. Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, seemed to have little interest in striking the type of deal that might be acceptable to Washington. The situation was further complicated by then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a hardline firebrand. Iran’s brazen efforts to challenge the United States and its partners across the region only deepened the Pentagon’s concern about a nuclear-armed Tehran, which could proliferate its capabilities, inspire copycats, and inhibit the willingness of decision-makers in the United States and the Middle East to counter its bad behavior.