Iran’s Nuclear Chess: After the Deal | Wilson Center
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Iran’s Nuclear Chess: After the Deal

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Robert Litwak, author of “Iran’s Nuclear Chess: After the Deal,” assessed the terms and prospective implementation of the nuclear agreement reached between Iran and the P5+1.

On September 11, 2015, the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted the event “Iran’s Nuclear Chess: After the Deal” with Litwak, also Vice President for Scholars and Academic Relations at the Wilson Center, and commentator David Sanger, The New York Times Chief Washington Correspondent and former Public Policy Scholar the Wilson Center. Andrew Selee, Executive Vice President of the Wilson Center, provided opening remarks, commenting on the timely matter of the event.  

Sanger opened the event by stating that the earlier edition of Litwak’s monograph, “Iran’s Nuclear Chess: Calculating America’s Moves,” articulates the set of challenges the deal with Iran poses for the Obama administration and explores its impact on the broader region. However, this edition addresses a different set of challenges that could arise in the implementation phase of the concluded deal.

Litwak stressed that in both Iran and the United States, the nuclear issue is a proxy for a more fundamental debate. He asserted that Iran’s challenge is its relationship with the outside world and managing its unresolved identity crisis as a revolutionary state or an ordinary country. For the United States, the nuclear challenge poses questions related to its broader strategy with “outlier states.” Litwak highlighted how the agreement with Iran is a deal, not a grand bargain. Moreover, because the deal is transactional, not transformational, it does not impact the fundamental nature of the Iranian state. He indicated that while President Obama defends the deal in transactional terms and extends transformational hope, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei fears the deal’s transformational potential and aims to preserve Iran’s role as a revolutionary state.

Sanger initiated discussion on the issue of Iran potentially cheating on the agreement. He noted that as soon as an issue arises, critics of the deal will likely argue that their initial concerns materialized. Litwak said negotiations left room for ambiguity that could later be exploited. He argued that if Iran is accused of cheating, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) should be used to address the terms of the allegation. Sanger referred to North Korea’s nuclear program and indicated that unlike North Korea, if Iran were to cheat it would not do so in a dramatic, easily discoverable fashion.

Litwak discussed Obama’s “red line” on Iran’s weaponization and the implications of a military option in the greater U.S. strategy. He emphasized that the preferred U.S. policy approach is integration, but if that is not feasible or if the other party is not willing to engage through integration then the preferred policy is containment. Litwak mentioned that this updated edition of his book untangles the connotations of “containment” in contemporary U.S. political discourse. He explained that the U.S. strategy regarding Iran should decouple the nuclear issue from the question of regime change.

Sanger asked Litwak about the possibility of an actor sabotaging the deal during the implementation period, particularly Israel or the United States. Litwak replied that for Israel sabotage would be an attractive option, but for the United States, if implementation is proceeding smoothly, there is fear that sabotage would cause the agreement to collapse.

In response to a question regarding U.S. and Iranian methods of pressuring the other through sanctions and terrorism, respectively, Litwak asserted that the deal with Iran addresses the nuclear issue, untying it from other parts of Iran’s behavior that contradicts our interests. He articulated that the United States must have a strategy that splits these terms and manages the nuclear issue independent of other concerns.

By Nishaat Shaik, Middle East Program


  • Robert S. Litwak

    Senior Vice President and Director of International Security Studies
  • David Sanger

    Former Distinguished Fellow
    National Security Correspondent, The New York Times; and former Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center