Almost one third of the time allotted for the negotiation on implementation of an interim agreement to restrict – but not eliminate – Iran’s nuclear weapons program has already passed. The interim agreement requires Iran to ratchet back its nuclear activities for six months in exchange for a loosening of sanctions while negotiations are conducted on a comprehensive agreement. So far, the Obama Administration seems to have had more success negotiating with the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate over their desire to impose additional sanctions on Teheran than it has in closing the deal with its opposite number. It is hard to imagine how the political parties, Iran and the P5 plus 1 (the U.S., Great Britain, France, Russia and China plus Germany), will be able to work their way through an interim agreement, conduct the required verification activities related to its implementation and reach a comprehensive settlement in a little over four months. Even if the timeline is extended, this does not mean that a final, comprehensive agreement is possible. Or at least not unless one side or the other caves on issues that each has declared vital.
So, that leads me to ask the question: does the U.S. have a Plan B if negotiations with Iran fail? In general, the U.S. and its allies have three choices. First, they could do nothing, thereby allowing Iran to continue to enrich fissile materials, work on the parts of a nuclear weapon and advance its development of long-range ballistic missiles. Second, the West could tighten the sanctions even further, as the Senate was prepared to do a few weeks ago. Based on the effect of the current sanctions regimen, this could break the Iranian economy. But it also could incentivize the regime to put the pedal to the metal on its nuclear program. Third, the U.S. (alone or with others) could launch a pre-emptive military campaign to destroy as much of the Iranian program as it can thereby setting it back several years, at least. The Iranian regime is likely to react to this with its own strategic campaign of asymmetric attacks on the U.S., Israel and perhaps Europe.
None of these choices produces a stable end state. A Plan B – or B, C and D – needs to address not only the immediate response to the failure of negotiations but also the longer-term management of the second and third order consequences of whichever one of the three policy choices the U.S. takes. Allowing Iran to complete its nuclear weapons programs will upend the political and military balances in the region. At a minimum, the U.S. will need to develop a deterrence strategy and declaratory policy as well as consider additional security guarantees to regional allies. In the event additional sanctions are imposed, the U.S. will have to plan for the possibility of Iranian-sponsored terrorist attacks on its facilities in the region, local friends and allies and even more distant targets in Europe and the United States. There is also a requirement to think through how the U.S. would respond to the collapse of the Iranian regime and the need to secure a vast stockpile of nuclear materials and equipment. Finally, the same danger would exist in the event of U.S. military action against Iran, plus the possibility that Iranian forces would seek to close the Strait of Hormuz and directly retaliate against U.S. facilities and interests in the region.
What Plans B, C and D should have in common is a robust military response designed to counter potential Iranian offensive activities. The U.S. has already taken some steps in this direction, proposing to sell advanced military equipment including missile defense to regional allies. The White House and the Pentagon also should prepare to accelerate the deployment of the European Phased Adaptive Defense. In addition, the U.S. needs to be prepared to shift U.S. military assets to the region. If things go truly bad with respect to Iran, the pivot to Asia may be countered by the need to do a reverse to the Middle East. Ironically, a deterioration in relations with Iran may validate the long-standing two major war force planning paradigm that the Obama Administration tried to walk away from with its 2012 Defense Guidance.
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