Iran's Pretend Nuclear Freeze
Supporters of the Iran nuclear deal, otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), tie themselves into the proverbial Gordian Knot to justify the agreement’s validity. Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress, appears to be the latest victim. Claiming president Reagan would have supported the Iran nuclear deal because his policy on arms control "evolved" in the later years of his Presidency, once he received "sound advice" from "experts."
Reagan’s arms control policy is commonly misinterpreted as a result of his reference to the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) II treaty as "fatally flawed," a point he repeated at his first Presidential press conference.
President Carter had previously withdrawn the SALT II proposal from the Senate after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and Reagan did not pursue it further, though he agreed to its observation under a “no undercut” policy. Soviet violations of SALT II, however, resulted in Reagan’s withdrawal from both SALT I and SALT II compliance in 1986.
Reagan said a treaty [SALT II] that allows a Soviet buildup of over 13,000 nuclear warheads could hardly be described as an "arms control" agreement. He went on to say that he wanted to secure reductions, not endorse a huge Soviet build-up. Reagan’s pursued the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces INF Treaty and a new reductions treaty called START I Treaty. These included extensive regimes for on-site inspection and in the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) I of 1992, an extensive telemetry regime. The foundation of Reagan’s policy was always about “trust but verify.”
The supporters of SALT II largely opposed what Reagan did in strategic nuclear arms control. Those who embraced the conventional wisdom at the time certainly continued to support the 1970’s approach to arms control that led to SALT II.
Reagan knew it would take time for the country to modernize its nuclear forces and thus acquire the leverage to seek real arms control. Reagan supported arms control as early as 1977, when he pushed for reductions in nuclear forces in testimony before the Committee on the Present Danger. His proposal for reductions was rejected at the time as "impractical," "non-negotiable" and "fantasy" by many "experts."
Reagan opposed the proposed nuclear freeze because it would have ensured massive nuclear advantages for the Soviets. The Soviets carried out the fears expressed by Reagan in the 1980s by extensively modernizing their nuclear forces that had just been modernized in the 1970s. Under President Carter, U.S. nuclear forces deterioated, while under Reagan the U.S. “Nuclear Triad” was extensively modernized.
The Soviet nuclear modernizations of the 70s and 80s led Reagan and his National Security team to identify the "fatal flaws" of the SALT II treaty framework. The huge Soviet advantage in "heavy" or large multiple warhead ICBMs might lead Moscow in a crisis to "prompt launch" their missiles to destroy the vast majority of U.S. nuclear forces. That was the "window of vulnerability" Reagan spoke of during the 1970's which he pledged to close.
By the fall of 1981 the White House put together National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) policy papers laying the ground work for the START treaty process, leading to major reductions in nuclear weapons. This would include a nearly 90% cut in Soviet era deployed strategic warheads and the elimination of all Soviet INF nuclear forces. The Soviet’s sudden agreement to the INF treaty was certainly in part due to Reagan’s termination of US compliance with both SALT I and SALT II in 1986, which demonstrated Reagan’s strict adherence to the policies of sound deterrence and strict compliance.
In this fashion, Reagan was ahead of most of the arms control community on nuclear force reductions. However, he departed from the arms control community by supporting the simultaneous modernization of America's nuclear forces, known as "build-down," while seeking reductions.
In the previous decade, as explained by former Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, the balance between the US and the Soviets was characterized by "We build, they build. We stop. They build." Reagan altered that narrative.
The only means to secure stabilizing reductions and maintain a credible deterrent was to simultaneously modernize the force. Eventually giving the United States political and military leverage to successfully negotiate a verifiable reductions deal. [The Soviets rejected outright a Carter administration proposal for reductions in 1977].
Over eight years the Reagan administration successfully deployed the entire range of proposed strategic and intermediate range nuclear systems. None of this would have been accomplished under the nuclear freeze.
In pushing simultaneously for modernization and reductions, Reagan laid the ground work for what would become a key legacy: five key principles for nuclear deterrence that if followed would provide strategic stability.
First, Reagan’s early NSDDs called for simultaneous reductions and modernization of our nuclear forces, deploying the B1 and B2 bomber, the Peacekeeper missile, the D-5 SLBM and the Ohio class nuclear attack submarine.
Second, the NSDDs also called for flexible counting rules on bombers so the U.S. nuclear and conventional bomber force could be deployed in significant numbers while also enhancing stability.
Third, the U.S. force structure would emphasize a secure second strike capability which required multiple warheads be deployed aboard "continuously at sea" submarines.
Fourth, missile defense would become a compliment to strategic stability, modernization and arms control through deterrence. Instead of threatening massive retaliation for even a small nuclear attack against the U.S., which Reagan thought was largely a bluff, missile defenses would deter nuclear armed nations from threatening the use of weapons at the low end of the nuclear spectrum. [We also know since the end of the ABM treaty in 2002, strategic deployed nuclear warheads decreased by nearly 70%].
Fifth, the U.S. sought to correct serious flaws in the SALT allowed build-up through ratification of START II, banning multiple warhead land based missiles. However, the 1993 treaty signed by Presidents Bush and Yeltsin was rejected by the Russian Duma in 2000, attempting to leverage the elimination of U.S. missile defenses, thus also eliminating any hope of enacting START II.
In light of this history, would Reagan have supported the Iran deal?
It is obvious President Reagan would have had serious difficulty, as many top security officials do, of going forward with an unsigned not-legally binding “agreement” (more accurately a policy statement) with a treacherous adversary. He would have understood the content of the “deal” is inadequate, the verification regime seriously flawed, and the financial impact of the deal could assure the covert acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran.
"If it had not been for Israel's earlier preemptive [air strikes] operations against both Iraq and Syria (Operations Opera and Orchard, respectively), the Middle East could already have been rife with Arab or Islamist nuclear forces."
Iran continues to threaten the region, the U.S., and the United States most trusted ally Israel. So does the JCPOA make sense for the United States? On balance I don't believe it does.
The Senate and House of Representatives as well as the American people overwhelmingly thought the Iran deal is "fatally flawed." Almost 60% of both houses of Congress voted against it, which is unprecedented for a White House initiated international agreement.
The deal gives Iran a legal path to get nuclear weapons in 11 years, not 15. The financial windfall to Iran clearly could allow significant covert purchases of nuclear weapons from North Korea, whose production capability has significantly increased over the last five years. The "deal" also shortens the time it would take Iran to acquire sufficient nuclear weapons fuel, from an assumed year to six months or even weeks, according to the former safeguards chief at the International Atomic Energy Agency, Ollie Heinonen.
The U.S. needs to keep Iran's feet to the fire, dismantle its global terror network and stop its regional aggressions in Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen. Our priority should be to ensure that Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons nor the missiles to deliver them at any time not just for the near term.
The so-called Iran nuclear deal does not address most of these issues. Iran could produce nuclear weapons nearly a decade from now, even if up to that time abiding by the terms of the deal. The U.S. is even required to assist Iran in developing advanced centrifuges that Iran could eventually use to make nuclear weapons fuel.
Will Iran wait ten years before getting nuclear weapons? Probably not. In either case, will America be prepared to eventually deal with a nuclear Iran, led by clerics seeking Armageddon as a means of ushering in the “End of Times?”
Correcting the nuclear deal with Iran may turn out to be the next administration's single most difficult foreign policy task, vital to U.S. national security.
And while speculating what Reagan would do is an interesting question, I think just as Reagan rejected the Soviet proposed nuclear freeze in 1981, so too he would reject the idea that Iran's temporary nuclear freeze is just fine.