Skeptics about the looming nuclear accord with Iran may be taking comfort from the promises of Republican presidential candidates to tear up the treaty as soon as they reach the Oval Office. They shouldn’t be. Even assuming a Republican wins the White House next year (hardly a certainty), pulling out of the agreement won’t necessarily fix its defects. In fact it could make the situation even worse.
Iran, as its leaders have made clear, is expecting an immediate payoff from signing the accords—a payoff that President Obama has vowed to deliver. If leaks are accurate, Obama is offering Iran a $50 billion “signing bonus” by offering to unfreeze a large portion of the Iranian oil funds held overseas. And that’s just for starters. The Iranians clearly expect that within weeks—or at most months—they will reap even more substantial sanctions relief from the U.S., the UN, the EU, and other relevant actors. And they’re probably right. While Obama cannot formally repeal all U.S. sanctions without legislative action, he can suspend most of them, and our allies will eagerly follow suit.
Obama assures us that if Iran is caught cheating the sanctions will “snap back” but it’s impossible to imagine this president ever admitting that his signature achievement—a nuclear accord with Iran—has unraveled. So in practice there is no chance of any sanctions being reapplied before January 20, 2017.
.At that point, assuming a Republican wins the Oval Office, could decide to put all the U.S. sanctions back into place. But if so Iran then could sprint ahead with a nuclear breakout and lay the blame on the US in the court of international public opinion. In any case the president would not be able to reapply the multilateral sanctions that have been the most important element in applying pressure to Iran; that would require actions that Russia and China could block at the UN, and even our European allies would be unlikely to back up the U.S. because they would be doing so much business with Tehran by that point.
The U.S. would then get the worst of both worlds: Iran already would have been enriched by hundreds of billions of dollars of sanctions relief—and it would be well on its way to fielding nuclear weapons with de facto permission from the international community. To avoid this nightmare scenario, the best play from America’s standpoint could well be to keep the accord in place to at least delay Iran’s decision to weaponize.
In short, don’t expect salvation in 2017. If the accord is signed its consequences will be irrevocable. Whatever a future president does or does not do, Iran’s hard-line regime will be immeasurably strengthened by the agreement. That makes it all the more imperative to stop a bad agreement now—not two years from now.