Arms control agreements are by their very nature controversial. They often fall short of achieving everything that was hoped for. Potential gaps in enforcement can make the threat worse, and even if the parties abide by the terms of the agreement, evasion is always suspected.
Yet as imperfect as these agreements are, they provide a chance that the world can move in a safer direction. The key is that no arms deal can be effective in a policy vacuum. Any deal must be tied to a larger strategy to protect national security interests. As an example, the nuclear arms deals with the Soviet Union were justified not so much deal by deal but as part of a broader policy of containment.
And so it is with the still-controversial Iran nuclear arms agreement.
In itself, the Iran deal would appear to reward Tehran for defying the world, make funds available for its extremist activities and generally make it stronger militarily and economically. Although the agreement provides for a temporary delay in Iran’s nuclear enrichment capability, it allows Tehran to retain its nuclear infrastructure and obtain sanctions relief. The risk is that Iran could become an even bigger threat to the region.
Let’s face it, given the situation in the Middle East, empowering Iran in any way seems like a dangerous gamble. Islamic State is on the march; the Arab Spring is in shreds; Syria and Yemen are failed states; Iran is supporting Syria’s Bashar Assad, Hezbollah and the Houthis in Yemen; the Saudis are fighting in Yemen; Egypt is fighting in the Sinai Peninsula; Hamas and Hezbollah are rearming to confront Israel; the Palestinians are languishing; Libya is fighting itself; Turkey is fighting ISIS and the Kurds.
The response of the United States to these threats is driven more by the crisis of the moment than by any overarching geopolitical or military strategy. The principal driving motivation appears to be to avoid being trapped by another war in the region.
Yet the Iran deal provides the United States with an opportunity to define a policy of strength, not ambivalence, in the Middle East. The administration need only make clear that the fundamental purpose of the nuclear deal is not just to constrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions but to build a strong coalition that will confront both Iran and terrorism in the future.
The following steps are crucial for such a strategy:
Enforce the deal. A certain inertia follows the approval of any arms deal. That cannot happen in this case. The United States must work diligently with its allies, the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency to fully implement the constraints in the agreement. Any violation, even a small one, must be swiftly and strongly addressed.
Maintain a strong military presence. Force projection by our naval, air and ground forces is vital for defending our interests.
Expand intelligence capability. If Iran violates the agreement, it will do so covertly. For that reason, the United States must restore its cooperative intelligence relationship with Israel and invest in intelligence operations with our other allies. Monitoring Iranian activity, targeting terrorist leaders and networks, and assessing potential threats and hidden activities will be crucial for both stability and security in the region.
Make it clear that force is an option. Although the use of force should never be the first response, the argument against military action has been made so often that it has created uncertainty about our will to do what we say. For that reason, Congress should pass a resolution authorizing the current and future presidents to use force to prevent Iran from ever obtaining a nuclear weapon. This is U.S. policy; there should be no doubt that force can be used if necessary to stop Tehran from building a bomb.
Bolster the Middle East coalition. When I was secretary of Defense, working with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, we began to build a security force with the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Those efforts should continue. Because we provide significant military aid to both Israel and our Arab allies, there is no reason we should not have a joint operations center to better coordinate and direct the efforts of our allies in fighting terrorism and the destabilizing influence of Iran. We must redouble our efforts to bolster the security capabilities of our Sunni partners, including Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and others. Such a coalition is vital to maintaining the balance of power in the region.
With the Iran deal, President Obama has taken the right first step in seeking to limit Iran’s ability to obtain a nuclear weapon. As of this week, he has the votes to veto potential congressional disapproval. Rather than sending a message of a divided America, Congress should support the deal. What should sell it to those who still object is this: The agreement opens the door to a larger U.S. strategy to advance peace and stability in the Middle East. That makes the Iran deal not just a gamble but an opportunity for a safer world.
Leon E. Panetta was secretary of Defense from 2011 to 2013.