The Trump administration's vocal pessimism regarding the Iran deal threatens the legitimacy of the entire nonproliferation regime. Here, Sina Azodi argues that their bad faith stems from a realist misunderstanding of the incentives in the agreement itself. 

In July 2015, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) brought forth a diplomatic resolution to the conundrum caused by Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. More commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, the JCPOA is a nuclear non-proliferation agreement between Iran and the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany (P5+1), and is backed by the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231 (UNSCR 2231), making it a part of international law. The agreement curbs Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, and results in the recognition of its civilian nuclear program by major world powers.

I will use the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as a case study to argue that a strong verification system and the strategic implications of a violation will deter states from cheating in order to refute the claims made by structural realists, who are generally pessimistic about the possibility of cooperative policies under the international system. Generally, they contend that given the anarchic nature of international system, and the ever-existing possibility of cheating, states are less inclined to cooperate and are better off if they pursue their own interests. However, I refute these claims by arguing that cooperation can serve the security interests of countries who are adversaries.

Structural Realists, like Kenneth Waltz, argue that in the self-help international system, states are less inclined to cooperate because “[a] state worries about division of possible gains that may favor others more than itself”.[i] In other words, the U.S., fearing Iran’s empowerment, should have continued its “zero-enrichment” policy of the Bush era, which did not permit Iran to have any enrichment capacity on its soil. Based on this view, given that the U.S. viewed Iran’s nuclear program as a security concern, sanctions, and unilateral actions (e.g. military) would better serve US security interests by focusing on directly eliminating Iran’s nuclear ‘threat.’ A non-cooperative policy by Iran could have also served its interests by allowing it to rapidly advance its nuclear program toward a breakout capacity, deterring any potential aggressor. However, I argue that nuclear restraint, as embodied in the JCPOA, has significantly reduced the chances of a conflict between Iran and the U.S. by legitimizing Iran’s nuclear program, making it more difficult for any country to justify an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The question that arises is regarding why Iran and the U.S. decided to cooperate and sign a nuclear arms control agreement. Structural Realists, mainly Waltz and Mearsheimer, argue that states are better off if they do not cooperate, and given the possibility of cheating, states should seek to maximize their own power. However, the JCPOA demonstrates that restraint and cooperative policies at times are preferable.  John Mearsheimer, in his seminal book Tragedy of Great Power Politics argues that states are often reluctant to enter into cooperative agreements for “fear that the other side will cheat on the agreement and gain a significant advantage.”[ii] While this argument may seem to hold merit, there are other important factors that need to be discussed. Schelling and Halperin argue in Strategy and Arms Control, that the risks of cheating must be weighed against the benefits the agreement would provide. “Dangers of cheating depend on probability of detecting violations… and strategic implications of given degree of cheating…” Iran has agreed under the JCPOA to voluntarily implement the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty ’s Additional Protocol that “significantly increases the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) ability to verify the peaceful use of all nuclear material.” The Iran nuclear deal, according to the Director General of IAEA Yukio Amano, is “the strongest verification regime;” therefore, the likelihood of a violation being detected is extremely high. Given that both Iran and the U.S. contend that JCPOA is not based on trust, but on verification, and that both countries substantially benefit from fulfilling their commitments, I argue that it is very unlikely that either side decides to cheat.

The JCPOA has been approved by the United Nations Security Council, making it a part of international law. In that way, the strategic implications of cheating by either Iran or the U.S. would run counter to their respective security objectives. “The possibility of cheating is important only for cases in which cooperation…. would increase the country’s security.”[iii] In JCPOA’s case, if either of the two countries violate the deal they will be left worse off. If Iran cheats on its JCPOA commitments, it will be in the breach of not only the JCPOA, but also the UNSCR 2231, and most likely will face “snap-back” sanctions that were provisioned in the nuclear deal, and other punitive countermeasures. This will push Iran back to pre-2015 when it was under crippling UN imposed sanctions, and was facing the looming threat of ‘Iraqization’, selling enough oil only to import food and medicine. The United States also, will be in violation of UNSCR 2231 if it breaches the terms of JCPOA. Further, if the U.S. chooses to withdraw or cheat on its commitments, it will risk losing its diplomatic credibility, in addition to alienating European allies who have strongly supported the implementation of the deal. This will give Iran valid reasoning to resume its nuclear program, which U.S. sees as a serious threat. In addition, given that the U.S. is seeking a diplomatic resolution for North Korea’s nuclear threat, a potential violation by the U.S. will convince North Korea not to enter into negotiations with the U.S. For years, the U.S. imposed crippling sanctions on the Iranian economy, arguing that sanctions will bring Iran to the negotiating table. However, if it now decides to violate the deal for no particular reason, it can endanger the nonproliferation regime and its image as a trustworthy negotiator. Given that neither Iran nor the U.S. would benefit from cheating, cooperative policies will best serve the interests of both countries.

Cooperative policies can further avert potential military conflicts “...adversaries find peacetime cooperation desirable because it enables them to moderate causes of war that already exist or to avoid competition that would intensify causes of war.”[iv]  As Iran advanced its nuclear program, U.S. allies in the region, especially Saudi Arabia and Israel, felt extremely uneasy and pressured Washington to take military action. Marc Lynch argues that “if negotiations did not succeed before Iran reached a ‘point of no return’ …the U.S. and/or Israel would feel compelled to launch military strikes…” Given that Iranian officials had repeatedly warned that a military action against Iran would be retaliated, a unilateral action could have sparked a dangerous military conflict in the region. In the words of former Secretary of State, John Kerry this [bombing campaign] would have been a “trap in lots of ways.” In addition, one must keep in mind that the military effectiveness of such unilateral action is debatable, and could convince Iran to fully pursue a nuclear weapons capability, further increasing the possibility of war in the region. Therefore, I argue that signing of JCPOA and peacetime cooperation between the two countries reduced the likelihood of a military conflict in the region.

While Structural Realists are generally skeptical of cooperation in the international system, given the strong verification methods embodied in the JCPOA, and serious ramifications of cheating on the agreement, I argue that it is very unlikely that either Iran, or the U.S. risk violating the deal. The JCPOA, despite flaws inherent in any agreement, is fulfilling its purpose as a nuclear nonproliferation agreement, and has helped averting a potential military conflict in the region. Successful implementation of the Iran nuclear deal demonstrates that unlike Structural Realists’ views, strong verification measures, and punitive countermeasures can deter states from cheating, and that adversaries can mutually benefit from cooperation in the international system.

[i] Waltz, Kenneth . Theory of International Politics. (Long Grove: Waveland Press , 2010). P. 106 

[ii] Mearheimer, John. Tragedy of Great Power Politics. ((W.W. Norton & Company : New York, 2014) P. 52

[iii] Glaser, Charles. Realists as Optimists: Cooperation as Self-Help. P.79

[iv] Ibid. P.51

Sina Azodi, is a PhD student in Political Science and a graduate researcher at University of South Florida's Center for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies.  He received his  B.A. & M.A from the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University. He focuses on Iran's foreign policy and U.S.-Iranian relations. Follow him on Twitter @azodiac83