The Project on U.S. Middle East Nonproliferation Strategy recently released a report outlining – you guessed it – a Middle East nonproliferation strategy.The first section is on how to tackle Iran’s nuclear program. I took a closer look at some of the recommendations made in the report about how economic sanctions and diplomacy should play out in coming weeks and months.
Here’s my take on some of the key points:
1) Don’t forget about the 2nd track. The report argues that sanctions are not working because Iran hasn’t agreed to limit its nuclear program yet: “Sanctions so far have failed to achieve their avowed objective of inducing Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to agree to permanently circumscribe, and establish the peaceful nature of, their nuclear program.”
But this misses the point: the sanctions aren’t meant to change Iran’s course – at least not by themselves. According to White House officials, the administration is committed to a two-track policy that combines economic pressure with diplomatic negotiations. This means that it’s impossible to evaluate the success of sanctions until we’ve seen what leverage they can produce with negotiations.
So yes, while it’s true in a vacuum that sanctions haven’t stopped Iran’s nuclear development, this is hardly the whole picture. There was never meant to be a straight line between sanctions and curbing Iran’s nuclear program, because there’s a crucial middle step – diplomacy. In other parts of the report the authors do address negotiations, but it’s nonetheless over-simplistic to criticize sanctions based only on the amount of uranium Iran has enriched, while ignoring the subtle political shifts surrounding the nuclear program.
2) Diminishing returns? Because it assumes that sanctions have failed, the report calls for ramping up the economic pressure on Iran, such as through a global trade embargo on all non-humanitarian trade with Iran. This would expand the US-Iran embargo that has been in place since 1995.
But the problem here is that the authors assume a linear relationship – more sanctions = more pressure = more concessions from Iran – that doesn’t exist. It’s not about the quantity of sanctions we impose, it’s about the quality – how and when we do it. And in fact, after a point, sanctions start to have diminishing returns. I’ve argued before that more sanctions send the wrong message to Iran, and others have pointed out as well that sanctions imposed at the wrong time can hinder diplomatic progress and complicate the already messy process of lifting sanctions later on. For what it’s worth, the Obama administration is worried about this, too.
3) They’re called “smart” sanctions for a reason. The idea of diminishing returns raises an important question: how do we know when we’ve reached the point where sanctions start to hurt us, rather than help? One answer to that question comes from Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, a sanctions expert and professor at Virginia Tech, who thinks that the tipping point comes when sanctions go from being “smart” or “targeted” against particular individuals or entities to “comprehensive,” aimed more generally at the economy as a whole. Salehi-Isfahani argues:
“When sanctions were “smart” and aimed to make life difficult for Iran’s leaders, ordinary Iranians acted as disinterested bystanders. But now that sanctions aim to make life difficult for them, they will have to take sides… Most Iranians are not all that invested in nuclear enrichment, one way or the other, but few would see stopping Iran’s enrichment as their cause.”
The point is that in addition to undermining negotiation efforts with the government, expanded sanctions may alienate the Iranian population. The population’s support is an important asset for the United States, especially in the long term as we look toward possibly normalizing US-Iranian relations – but stoking popular antagonism toward the U.S. can only help hard-liners in the Iranian regime. (For more general versions of this argument, see the latest Iran Project Report and this piece by Professor Stephen Walt).
The reason this matters is that the new report calls for sanctions that bring us far closer to a comprehensive sanctions regime. Indeed, the authors write: “The more comprehensive the trade and investment embargo imposed on Iran is, and the faster it is imposed, the more rapidly will Iran be threatened with a drastic deterioration in its balance of payments.”
This would represent a dangerous move away from a targeted approach and toward a comprehensive sanctions policy that could ultimately be counterproductive.
4) Yes we can…make a deal with the Iranians. At times, the report is almost dismissive of the possibility of getting to a workable deal, highlighting Iran’s “continued…unwillingness to compromise” and suggesting that “Iran’s leadership feels it needs antagonism between Iran and the West to sustain its survival.” But it’s believed by many analysts and government officials, including Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, that Supreme Leader Khameini will compromise once the costs of not doing so are high enough, and once he gets an offer that allows him to save face. (It’s worth noting that the argument that Iranians will never compromise is logically inconsistent with the authors’ suggestion to ramp up the economic pain until they DO compromise).
5) But both sides need to compromise.The authors also argue that “There are strong reasons to doubt whether there are any positive incentives, that the United States and its allies could conceivably offer to Iran, that could make a significant contribution to persuading Iran to halt its sensitive nuclear activities.”
This simply isn’t true. The evidence given for this argument is Iran’s rejection of a deal offered by EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana in 2006. But that deal failed because it required Iran to entirely suspend enrichment, something most, if not all, experts believe that Iran will never agree to. So the failure of the 2006 deal certainly doesn’t mean that there are no positive incentives that we can offer. (And besides, that offer was rejected far before the squeeze of the current set of sanctions, which means that surely the authors believe we’re in a much better negotiating position now than in 2006).
Indeed, the report itself discusses plenty of positive incentives that could conceivably be offered to Iran. But there’s no question that the most important ones are sanctions relief and a right to limited uranium enrichment under strict inspections. We simply won’t get a nuclear deal without offering some incentives. As Iran scholar Suzanne Maloney wrote in a memo to the President:
“The sole consistency in Iran’s nuclear diplomacy over the course of the past 11 years has been its transactional approach, and the regime’s insistence on compensation for any concessions has only been strengthened by the escalation in the price that it has paid for its aversion to compromise.”
6) Where the report got it right: I’ve been critical overall, but there’s one very important point made at the end of the chapter on Iran that policymakers should keep in mind going forward. To quote:
… the United States should be careful to avoid being seen as “moving the goal posts” on what is expected from Iran in order to achieve nuclear sanctions relief. This means lifting the nuclear sanctions on Iran if Iran takes the required steps in the nuclear arena, rather than conditioning the lifting of the nuclear sanctions on progress in non-nuclear arenas.
In other words, we can’t get what we want on the nuclear issue but then say that that isn’t enough. This is of particular concern because Iran is suspicious that the United States is looking for more than a nuclear deal, that it in fact wants the overthrowing of the regime. That suspicion is one of the factors holding Iran back from negotiations. The Obama administration has publicly disavowed this notion, but that’s precisely why it would be disingenuous and counterproductive to suddenly change the rules of engagement once a workable agreement is within reach.
Each side needs to see in the other a serious commitment to resolving the nuclear issue. And for the US, that means playing a tricky, but important game: combining sanctions and diplomacy in a strategic way that utilizes the leverage we have, rather than squandering it on policy that takes us farther from our goal.