Do Tighter Iran Sanctions Set Up a Collision Course?
These days we’re hearing two sets of concerns about the US and international pressure on Iran over its nuclear program. From one direction, GOP presidential candidates and other ultra-hawks argue for an escalated conflict with Iran. According to them, President Obama isn’t doing enough or is actually coddling Tehran. Not that the candidates really know much about the Administration’s Iran policy, but that’s par for the course and part and parcel of an increasingly bizarro Republican foreign policy aproach.
For some of Obama’s critics, their faith in military action gives them utter confidence that attacking Iran would squelch its nuclear ambitions without the kind of backlash we might regret. (Hmm, where have we heard that before?)
Yet another set of commentators, who are less sanguine about a war with Iran, warn that tightening the screws of economic sanctions — currently being prepared — already puts things on a dangerous course. Prominent voices in this camp are Trita Parsi and Suzanne Maloney, two of the foreign policy community’s top experts on the region and certainly warranting close attention.
Indeed, the questions they raise are central: has the Obama administration put higher priority on the sanctions than on the nuclear program itself, and in the process complicated (if not doomed) the effort to reach a peaceful solution? Here’s now Trita captures the core policy dilemma:
The challenge with multilateral sanctions, however, is that the diplomatic resources required to create concensus around sanctions are so great that once the sanctions threat gains momentum, the commitment of the sanctioning countries to this path tends to become irreversible.
He’s also correct that the moment just prior to sanctions is a time of heightened leverage — also a moment of opportunity, when the target of this international pressure might offer key concessions. And yes, when you hear people downplay eleventh-hour concessions as merely ploys to alleviate pressure, this misses the entire point that the aim of pressure is … to extract concessions.
The substance of concessions matters
Here’s where I have to offer a counterpoint, though. In short, not all concessions are created equal. When you’re doing this statecraft right, the leverage of impending sanctions produces measures that really move the parties toward a solution. But just because it’s foolish to choose sanctions over meaningful concessions doesn’t mean it’s wise to suspend sanctions in exchange for whatever the targeted government offers. With all the effort that goes into building support for sanctions, they should only be traded in a fair bargain.
That goes doubly when you’re bargaining over a deal that had been agreed to earlier on. In Trita’s piece, he recounts the story of October 2009 – June 2010, the months after Iran agreed and then reneged on a plan to transfer most of their enriched uranium out of the country. As UN Security Council countries were preparing for a new sanctions vote, the leaders of Turkey and Brazil undertook a dramatic initiative to mediate and obtained a last-minute agreement that resurrected the uranium transfer. The Obama administration was not impressed, and immediately called the vote in the Council, which passed.
As Trita sees it, the administration refused to take ‘yes’ for an answer. But I can argue that the Iranians were trying to sell us the same horse twice. For one thing, the agreement with Brazil and Turkey didn’t sufficiently account for the uranium that had been enriched in the intervening months. Contrary to Parsi’s analysis, I believe the administration would have welcomed a reasonable compromise. (I look forward to reading Trita’s more detailed account in his new book, A Single Roll of the Dice, which focuses on President Obama’s Iran diplomacy and will be out this month.)
Suzanne Maloney similarly argues that Obama’s sanctions diplomacy is undercutting its intended aim:
[T]he United States cannot hope to bargain with a country whose economy it is trying to disrupt and destroy. As severe sanctions devastate Iran’s economy, Tehran will surely be encouraged to double down on its quest for the ultimate deterrent. So, the White House’s embrace of open-ended pressure means that it has backed itself into a policy of regime change, something Washington has little ability to influence.
Not only is it far beyond America’s control to relpace Iran’s government, it is also at odds with the objective of preventing it from developing a nuclear weapon. The only way Iranian leaders would cooperate in proving Iran’s non-weapon status is if that would make them less, rather than more, vulnerable. After the overblown “axis of evil” rhetoric of President Bush, it’s actually been crucial for President Obama to highlight that nuclear weapons are the real issue, and not the Iranian leadership themselves.
Severe economic pressure = regime-change effort?
Still, is severe international economic pressure tantamount to a regime-change policy? I don’t see the two as equivalent. For me, the main point is that by resisting nuclear transparency, Iran is losing sympathy and becoming isolated. Suzanne emphasizes Iran’s long record of enduring hardship and pressure, but standing completely alone in the world community is easier said than done.
A policy of “open-ended pressure” would indeed be counterproductive. It is just as important for the Obama Administration to highlight that Tehran can get out of the penalty box, as it is to build a strong international coalition to keep up the pressure. Unlike Maloney, I still think the policy can keep these two in proper balance.
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