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.
For those of us working these issues every day, the possibility of a diplomatic breakthrough seemed remote. The much more likely scenario was that we would eventually run out of time, forcing the president to choose between several unsavory options.
Behind door number one: military action to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. This would have set its nuclear program back temporarily, while doing little to destroy its weapons-building expertise. Bombing may simply have produced an Iran even more committed to the pursuit of a weapon.
The United States would have responded, of course, with a substantial military operation that would have destroyed much of Iran’s military infrastructure—and potentially more. But it would then have been stuck in the Middle East for years, trying to contain a more aggressive and aggrieved Iran. That, in turn, would require a military presence in the Middle East far larger than the one of today.
The reality is that this outcome would have been very bad for Iran—indeed worse for the Iranians than the Americans. But it was also a costly, unappealing option for the United States.
The alternative was acquiescence to a nuclear-armed Iran. This scenario was also deeply problematic. Iran could theoretically decide, out of the blue, to conduct a nuclear strike against Israel or other U.S. partners, but we did not judge the regime to be suicidal, and believed this outcome unlikely—assuming Tehran maintained rigorous command and control over its arsenal. It could also potentially result in the transference of nuclear arms to Hezbollah, though that also seemed unlikely, as Iran was pretty judicious about the types of weapons it generally held for itself versus those it made available to its partners.