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Here’s what will happen if Iran cheats on the nuclear deal

An Iranian protest marking the 35th anniversary of the takeover of the US embassy in Tehran. Protestors chanted, "Death to America!"
An Iranian protest marking the 35th anniversary of the takeover of the US embassy in Tehran. Protestors chanted, "Death to America!"
(Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The United States, Iran, and a group of other world powers announced today that they have reached a deal that will prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. In its most basic terms, the agreement is an exchange: Iran is giving up its capability to develop a bomb, and in return, the US, Europe, and the UN are lifting the sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy.

Iran’s government is deeply hostile toward the United States, and there is good reason to suspect that it would at least like the ability to obtain nuclear weapons, so it’s natural to be worried about whether such an agreement could really be a good idea. Iran has broken past agreements before. Why should we trust it?

Fortunately, the Iran deal doesn’t depend on blind trust that Iran will do the right thing. Rather, it contains strict monitoring and enforcement measures that will swiftly punish Iran for any violation.

So the real question we should be asking isn't "should we trust Iran" — we shouldn't — but, rather, whether the monitoring in the deal is good enough to catch Iran if it cheats, and if the enforcement mechanisms are punishing enough that Iran decides it would just be too risky to try cheating on the deal.

There's a simpler way of asking that question: What happens if Iran cheats? What if it breaks its word and tries to develop a nuclear program?

If Iran gets caught cheating, sanctions will come back — and Iran's allies won't be able to block them

kerry zarif iran nuclear
US Secretary of State John Kerry (R) and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (L) shake hands as Omani Minister Responsible for Foreign Affairs Yusuf bin Alawi (2nd R) and former EU top diplomat Catherine Ashton watch. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

The nuclear deal actually lays out how all of this is supposed to work if Iran cheats — the negotiators clearly wanted to account for that — and it looks pretty good, if not perfect.

Let's say, for instance, that Iran is secretly siphoning off some of its uranium and centrifuges and shipping them to a hidden site under a mountain somewhere, where it secretly processes the uranium into nuclear fuel that could be used for a bomb.

First what would happen, almost inevitably, is that international inspectors would catch Iran. There are any number of points in the process where Iran could get caught. Inspectors at Iran's uranium mines, its uranium processing mills, or certainly its enrichment facilities would find out if Iran were siphoning off even a little bit of material. Or, for example, they would notice that Iran's centrifuge factories — which they'll monitor — are missing centrifuges.

"The likelihood of getting caught is near 100 percent," Aaron Stein, an arms control expert with the Royal United Services Institute, told my colleague Max Fisher.

What happens next is that the United States, or one of the other countries that signed the Iran deal, can notify the special eight-member commission that supervises the enforcement of the agreement that it believes Iran has "significantly" violated the deal. (The commission includes the deal signatories: the US, UK, France, China, Russia, Iran itself, and the European Union.) That commission has 35 days to try to resolve the problem internally. But if it doesn't resolve it to everyone's satisfaction, then any of the parties to the Iran deal can send the violation to the UN Security Council and begin the "snapback" process that reinstates sanctions.

Once it's at the UN Security Council, there's a very unusual way the violation gets dealt with. To prevent sanctions from returning, the Security Council would have to pass a new resolution declaring that sanctions shouldn't be reinstated. If no resolution passes within 30 days, then the UN sanctions would "snap back" into place. In other words, the five permanent members of the Security Council have to all agree that Iran didn't do anything wrong — if just one thinks Iran broke the deal, sanctions will automatically come back.

This makes it really easy to reimpose sanctions if even just the United States thinks Iran is cheating on the deal. And it means that Russia and China — which have tended to support Iran's interests — wouldn't be able to block the return to sanctions.

Separately, the US and EU would also have the power to snap their own sanctions back into place, basically returning to the status quo before the deal: heavy sanctions that are crushing Iran's economy.

Importantly, under the terms of the deal that whole process could take as little as 65 days — lightning fast by the standards of international diplomacy. That's assuming that the process works, of course, but it's a clever way to ensure that if Iran cheats, international sanctions are likely to come back.

The deal puts strong monitoring in place, which gives the US better military options if strikes become necessary

iran missiles
Iranian missiles on display during a parade marking the Iran-Iraq war in 2013. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)

Okay, so what if Iran cheats, we catch them, we reimpose sanctions, but Iran keeps developing its nuclear program anyway?

The deal does not spell this out, because arms control agreements by their nature don't get into military enforcement options, but it's pretty clear from President Obama's past statements: If Iran continues cheating and all nonmilitary options have been exhausted, then the US will start to pursue military options. In other words, the US has threatened to bomb Iran to stop its nuclear program, if that is what it takes.

This is another area where the nuclear deal is helpful. As Aaron Stein pointed out to Max, the monitoring will also be very valuable if the deal falls apart, because if military action turns out to be necessary, the information obtained via monitoring will make military strikes much more effective — we'll know just where everything is.

That's really important. Right now, although many hawkish analysts and politicians believe Iran is so untrustworthy that the US should skip the nuclear deal and go straight to military strikes, military action probably wouldn't actually work very well. As Zack Beauchamp explained back in April, to destroy those sites, the US would have to find them. And right now finding them would be a problem, because our intelligence just isn't detailed enough.

But the monitoring from the Iran deal would be much more comprehensive, and so would yield much better information. That means that in the worst-case scenario — if Iran did violate the deal so completely that military action turned out to be necessary to protect US interests — the US would still be better off than if the deal never happened at all, because any eventual military action would be more effective.

However, all of this is of course based on assuming that President Obama would, in fact, choose to bomb Iran if that were his last option. He's threatened as much, but it is an open question — and a source of frequent speculation in Washington — as to whether he really means it. Would he really pick war, especially given that even bombing will not permanently disable Iran's nuclear program? Would the next president?

That's not a question with a known answer, which is why everyone is hoping to avert that scenario entirely. War is a bad choice for the US, after all, but it's a really bad option for Iran, which is much weaker than the US. Iran knows that, and it saw what happened to Iraq and Afghanistan after the US-led invasions there. This is part of why everyone is so eager to avert the military scenarios entirely. But even if the US never actually takes military action against Iran, a stronger military threat will still be a stronger incentive for Iran to comply with the deal.

The bottom line: Even if Iran cheats, taking the deal is still better for the US than the status quo

There's a strong argument that the worst-case scenario isn't Iran violating the deal — it's if the United States walks away from the agreement now.

A big part of the reason Iran agreed to negotiate at all is that international sanctions are really hurting it. And a big part of the reason sanctions are hurting it is that the European Union and United Nations Security Council, which have much more economic leverage with Iran than does the US, have imposed them.

Snapping those sanctions back into place is the US's best threat that it can hold over Iran to scare it into compliance. In order to do that, the US needs to make sure the deal holds together and that it keeps international support. And the best way the US could screw that up is by failing to adhere to the deal itself.

That's exactly what deal opponents in Congress, as well as some Republican presidential candidates, are advocating. They would like for the US to break its agreement with the world powers and Iran and simply walk away; some are demanding that Obama do this, and others are threatening to de facto force it by voting for new sanctions and thus violating the American end of the agreement.

If the US were to really walk away from the deal, then the snapback threat would fall apart. The other countries that signed on to this deal would blame the US for its collapse and almost certainly refuse to impose new sanctions. Iran, meanwhile, would be free from the conditions of the deal — and free from many of the sanctions.

This would essentially be handing Iran something for nothing: sanctions relief in exchange for no new limits on nuclear activity. The US, for the reasons discussed above, would also be less capable of taking military action to halt the Iranian nuclear program, because it would never get the information it needs to make airstrikes well-targeted and effective. And it would not be able to count on European support, as it could in Afghanistan and to a lesser degree Iraq, for its military actions.

None of this makes it impossible for Iran to cheat. It has in the past, and it could again. But if it does, this deal means Iran will be caught quickly and punished severely — it will bear the overwhelming brunt of the pain. Its incentives really could not be clearer.

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