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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Photo credit: DipNote


Michael C.
Michael C6 years ago

The US sits uniquely postured with its military in the Middle East theater. Why ship all those bombs back home, when we could invest them in another war that someone "forced us to fight."

Truth be known, Iran once blackened the eye of the Great Satan, or at least in of mind of our military and our government, we have never forgotten the fact that we had simply lost another battle.

If it were just about Nuclear Weapons, we would have long ago leveled Occupied Palestine, but it seems that we love the jews more than we love Peace. After all, they have 200-3000 Nuclear Weapons, well, they do, one day and the next day they deny possessing any. Whats a friend to do?

When a nation allows the US to assert power over them, they are considered our friend, when countries like Iran chose to follow their own path, we chose to make them a pariah and in the end, we become obsessed with seeking their destruction.

So is the history of America, to go through history like a lost child, breaking all of its toys and choosing to always blame another for all the damage.

Ernest R.
Ernest R6 years ago

@ Marilyn L…I agree that you are dreaming. Whether the Arabs are smart or not is irrelevant. Israel would NOT join with Arab states in your proposed pan-Semitic union and has NO interest in a two state solution. It will NOT even recognize the other state. I agree with Iran’s idea that no country in the Middle East should have nuclear weapons, and believe that the goal of having other countries shaking in their boots is childish and dangerous. I can’t believe that the leaders of the US , which with its buddy Israel, have, unprovoked, attacked and really trashed four or five Middle Eastern countries, still have the balls to accuse Iraq of “meddling” in Middle Eastern affairs.

Carole R.
Carole R6 years ago

And it continues ...............

Richard Pietrasz
Richard Pietrasz6 years ago

There is no clear evidence that Iran is developing nuclear weapons, and SecDef Panetta recently stated Iran is not doing so. However, Israel and USA have carried out the first step in a hypothetical Iranian nuke weapon program for Iran, by creating a requirement for Iran to have nuclear weapons.

Israel has very publicly threatened Iran with nuclear attack for over eight years, aided by USA. In addition, USA has hundreds of nuclear weapon launch platforms near Iraq, on multiple fronts. There is considerable evidence that one or both countries carry out covert military operations against Iran on a continuing basis.

Parvez Zuberi
Parvez Zuberi6 years ago

Iran nuclear program is for peace full purpose the sanction or war will not help but will complicate the problem Israel have nuclear bombs which is well known to every one concerned but no voice is raised The Americans are playing same game that they played with IRAQ about WMD which was based on lies and Bush the war criminal is roaming free they do not care about nuclear but Americans are after the Iranian Oil .My sincere suggestion is instead of spending huge amount of money in another war they should look after the welfare of its own people and improve its economy which has gone down the drain and American people are suffering because of these unwanted wars

Ernest R.
Ernest R6 years ago

@ thomas m.. What ? Are you peace and freedom loving jackasses still around ?

Marie W.
Marie W6 years ago

Sanctions have never done a damn thing!

Jelica R.
Jelica R6 years ago

... continued:

Iran has no weapons that can attack America. Due to careless European participation in the pressure on Iran, and possible military engagement, bombs can fall down European cities, including the city where I live. Because of that I would prefer that you know little more about the real world and not believe everything you see in Hollywood movies and on Fox TV.

The case against war with Iran was highlighted by Tom E., Abdulziz A., Lyn, David L., Mark and many others. Here is what George Galloway has to say about it:

Jelica R.
Jelica R6 years ago

190 parties have joined the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), including the five nuclear-weapon States: the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China. Four non-parties to the treaty are known or believed to possess nuclear weapons. India, Pakistan and North Korea have openly tested and declared that they possess nuclear weapons, while Israel has had a policy of opacity regarding its own nuclear weapons program. The NPT has a three-pillar system: non-proliferation, disarmament and the right to peacefully use nuclear technology. I emphasize " the right to peacefully use nuclear technology".

"For me, the main point is that by resisting nuclear transparency, Iran is losing sympathy and becoming isolated."
-- Gee, where do you get this? Iran is not resisting it's obligations to nuclear transparency. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors can visit Iran's nuclear facilities any time they want. Besides, the real head of the Iran, Ali Khamenei, had issued a fatwa against the nuclear weapons, so all this Iran nuclear threat is a big fabrication, brought to public opinion in every USA election year. Check 2008th and 2004th if you don't trust me.

@ thomas m.: "Screw all this crap! Just bomb Iran off the face of the earth before they have a chance at getting to the US."
-- I believe you don't live in Europa. Iran has no weapons that can attack America. Due to careless European participation in the pressure on Iran, an

Ann Breeden
Ann Breeden6 years ago

Signed and noted. "War is not the answer."