University of Notre Dame
Kroc Institutde for International Peace Studies

Michael C. Desch

Michael C. Desch is Professor of Political Science and Co-director of the Notre Dame International Security Program.

Winston Churchill famously said of democracy that it was the worst form of government except for all the others. The same could be said of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran to contain its nuclear program.

The critics have a point. The JCPOA does not eliminate forever the possibility of Iran developing a nuclear weapon. It does nothing to hinder Iranian support for groups many Americans regard as terrorists—particularly Lebanon’s Hezbollah or various radical Shia groups in Iraq. And it does not break the power of the mullahs and unleash the Iranian masses yearning for freedom.

Most of the international community believes we should give Iran the chance to abide by this agreement.

Of course, it is not clear that any agreement could have achieved those lofty goals. The JCPOA was never about fostering regime change in Iran. Its focus was on constraining for a period of time developments in Iranian nuclear capabilities so as to forestall the Islamic Republic’s weaponization of them.


There are two ways to judge the success of the Obama Administration’s agreement. We can look at the changes it makes to the current Iranian program. We can also consider alternative strategies we might have pursued to see if they would have led to a better deal. The JCPOA improves the current situation and represents the most feasible long-term strategy for preventing Iran from going nuclear.

What were Iranian plans for its nuclear program? While we can never be certain on these matters, the authoritative judgment of the U.S. Intelligence Community in its 2007 National Intelligence Estimate was that Iran had already halted its nuclear program in 2003 in response to international pressure and was at worst “keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.”


The JCPOA makes it harder for Iran to execute that option. There are two routes to garnering sufficient fissile materials to build a nuclear weapon. One route involves enriching uranium-235 to 90 percent purity. The JCPOA forecloses that option by forcing Iran to reconfigure its underground facility at FORDOW so that it cannot enrich uranium. It also mandates that Iran disassemble 14,000 of the 19,000 centrifuges currently spinning at its Natanz facility. In addition to limiting future uranium enrichment there to 3.7 percent, it also forces Iran to reduce its current stockpile of lightly enriched uranium by 98 percent.

The other route to an Iranian bomb is through the accumulation of plutonium-239 as a bi-product of the operations of a Heavy Water reactor. The JCPOA shuts down this route completely by reconfiguring Iran’s Arak reactor, thus eliminating one of the most efficient sources of fissile materials available to Iran.


In sum, the JCPOA constitutes a marked improvement over the pre-agreement situation, which in any case was hardly as dire as some commentators in the United States and Israel portrayed it. But could we have reached a better deal? Critics suggest two ways of doing so: maintain economic sanctions and threaten military force. On the former, sanctions only work when they are multi-lateral and implemented by the majority of major powers. But most of the international community believes that we should give Iran a chance to abide by this agreement, which leaves unilateral American sanctions against Iran as the only, unrealistic option.

Given that neither unilateral sanctions nor the use of force are likely to be effective, the agreement looks better and better.

The United States is the world’s most formidable military power, and nothing in the JCPOA prevents it from acting with that power should it desire to do so. But the dirty secret is that we do not want to do so. Most analysts agree that while we can strike anywhere in Iran with air and missile power anytime we like, such strikes, absent a ground invasion and occupation, are likely to do little more than set back the Iranian nuclear program for a short period of time. Of course our catastrophic experience in invading and occupying Iraq, a much smaller and less developed country, hardly makes the prospect of ground operations in Iran very attractive. Given that neither unilateral sanctions nor the use of force are likely to be effective or attractive options, the JCPOA looks better and better.

It would be great had the JCPOA produced more far-ranging changes immediately. Expecting it to do so would be naive. But over the 15 to 20 year life of the agreement, it is conceivable that more far-ranging changes in Iran’s relationship with its neighbors and the United States could take place. In any case, if we simply freeze the current situation for that period of time, we’ve lost nothing in terms of the military option and gained political capital with our allies for the re-imposition of sanctions should relations not improve overall. The JCPOA is not a bad deal, especially compared to the alternatives.