Former State Department official Robert Einhorn discussed his view on whether Iran can be stopped from acquiring nuclear capability during a talk last Thursday called “Can Iran Be Stopped from Getting the Bomb?” As a special advisor to Hillary Clinton from 2009 to 2013, Einhorn was a key figure in laying the groundwork for the Iran Nuclear Deal, in which Iran promised to halt all nuclear research and hobble its existing program in exchange for sanctions relief. He discussed his perspective with Gary Samore, director of the Crown Center for Middle Eastern Studies. From 2009 to 2013, Samore served as the White House Coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction. 

The discussion began with a brief overview of United States efforts to prevent Iran from getting the bomb. Einhorn said that the Iran Nuclear Deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was adopted in 2015 after years of careful planning. President Donald Trump, a longtime critic of the deal, withdrew in May 2018 and resumed economic sanctions.

According to Einhorn, one possible intention of the Trump administration was to pressure Iran to accept a more “comprehensive new deal.” The deal would extend well beyond the JCPOA to constrain Iran’s regional activities and other elements of its weapons development. Einhorn explained, however, that many experts believe it is doubtful that the Trump administration was ever interested in negotiating specific elements of Iran’s behavior. Instead, he said, the administration believes that “the problem with Iran … is the nature of the regime … To get Iran to stop doing these bad things, you [have to] get rid of the regime.” 

Einhorn argued that while economic sanctions are heavily damaging the Iranian economy, it is unlikely that the United States will get Iran “either to capitulate or collapse.” The U.S. no longer has international support for its efforts, a stark contrast to their position during the JCPOA negotiations, when support was almost unanimous. In addition, Einhorn said that the Trump administration’s uncompromising position and their hints at a desire for regime change “have convinced the Iranian government that there’s nothing to gain from negotiating with Trump. They need to resist and hang on as long as they can.” Having survived under harsh economic sanctions for decades, the regime has become “very resilient [and] very resourceful,” Einhorn said.

Samore asked what Einhorn thought of Iran continuing to follow the rules of the nuclear deal despite U.S. withdrawal. Einhorn said that like many, he did not expect Iran to do this, especially since the Iranian government itself had stated that they would withdraw if the United States did as well. He suggested a variety of reasons as to why Iran might have not withdrawn. First, he said that Iran likely enjoys being on the moral high ground, isolating the United States from its allies. Likely due to Iran’s continued compliance with the deal, even the Europeans are making efforts to preserve trade with Iran despite U.S. sanctions, Einhorn said. Iran knows that as bad as their economic situation is now, “it could get a lot worse” if they were more belligerent. Also, aside from the Europeans, Iran has strong ties with China, India and Russia. China and India are major importers of Iranian oil, and according to Einhorn, there are reports that Russia is laundering Iranian oil through Russian territory. 

Einhorn argued that Iran is probably willing to hold out for at least another two years in the hope that a Democratic administration will replace Trump. Samore asked what advice Einhorn would give to that potential administration. He responded that he would advise the government not to immediately return to the deal because Trump’s decision to withdraw gave the United States a measure of leverage over Iran that would be foolish to give up. He explained that the United States does have the potential to negotiate a stronger deal, just not under the Trump administration. To emphasize their distance from the Trump administration, Einhorn argued that the Democrats need to explicitly disavow regime change and take a more flexible bargaining standpoint. For example, they need to offer increased positives for Iran such as more rigorous sanctions relief.

Samore brought up Trump’s tendency for “incredible about-faces,” such as his relationship with North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. He asked Einhorn about the chances of a similar occurrence with Iran, who said that a similar occurrence was almost unimaginable. In the first place, the United States has several allies in the Middle East including Israel and Saudi Arabia, both of whom are “dead-set against reconciliation.” By contrast, U.S. ally South Korea is actively promoting stronger links with North Korea. 

The American public also sees North Korea and Iran very differently, Einhorn said. He remarked that many Americans hold a neutral view of North Korea, seeing it as an odd “hermit country” but holding no real enmity against it. North Korea is not particularly aggressive toward its neighbor countries, generally restricting its human rights atrocities to its own citizens, Einhorn said. By contrast, the American public first became aware of U.S. tensions with Iran when they took American diplomats hostage in 1979 during the Iranian Revolution, “and we’ve never forgotten that,” Einhorn said. Nevertheless, he suggested that Iran must notice Trump’s surprisingly warm reception of North Korea and wonder if there is a way to bring Trump around to their side. 

Before Samore and Einhorn turned to the audience for questions, they discussed the specifics of Iran’s current level of nuclear capability. In 2018, Israel managed to seize an Iranian nuclear archive. The archive revealed that Iran has advanced significantly along the path to nuclear capability. However, it suspended its research after the Bush administration invaded Iraq in 2003, possibly out of a fear that Bush would next invade Iran and discover the extent of its program. Iran has not discarded its program altogether, however, putting its compliance with JCPOA in doubt. 

In the following Q&A, an audience member asked Einhorn to predict the United States’ response to clear evidence of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons. Einhorn responded that the United States, even under the more flexible and diplomatic Obama administration, would certainly respond with force. He explained that this was a major reason for Iranian caution in developing its weapons. Einhorn argued that Iran’s excessive caution in developing nuclear weapons hints that its government could be persuaded away from developing nuclear capability, and so the goal for the United States is to get Iran to “defer the decision far into the future” in the hopes that it will lose interest.

Ultimately, Einhorn reaffirmed his belief that the United States and Iran will only be able to overcome their animosity with a change in the administration. “If Trump is replaced, the American public made a mistake. If he is re-elected, then there is something fundamentally wrong with American society,” he said.