The limits of diplomacy: Why ‘better Iran deal’ may not be possible

Anyone who understands how sanctions are put in place and maintained knows the inherent limitations of the so called “snap back” mechanism.

A group of Orthodox Jewish protesters who support the Iran deal gathered in New York to protest against another group of anti-Iran deal protesters (photo credit: REUTERS)
A group of Orthodox Jewish protesters who support the Iran deal gathered in New York to protest against another group of anti-Iran deal protesters
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Although the nuclear agreement between the P5+1 powers and Iran is by no means a “good deal” as the White House insists, at this point in the game, a “better deal” is no longer possible. And the reasoning behind this might be more worrying than the actual limitations of this agreement.
The limitations with the Iran deal
As even the White House admits, this deal has many holes. A better deal would have extended nuclear limitations indefinitely, or at least until Iran underwent significant moves toward moderation and democratization; and it would have only lifted the non-nuclear related arms embargo or ballistic missile ban when Iran ended its subversive and radical activities in the region.
Furthermore, anyone who understands how sanctions are put in place and maintained knows the inherent limitations of the so called “snap back” mechanism, and how difficult implementation and verification over the next 10, 15 or 25 years will be (depending on which part of the agreement).
Moreover, intelligence is rarely “a smoking gun” of clear evidence, rather mostly clues, indications and estimations. And when presenting policy-shifting “indications” to the political level, they will more often than not be discarded. Will the White House risk tanking the whole deal based on “indications”? Iran will likely cheat and lie – maybe “around the edges” and to “test the boundaries,” but probably not obscenely or obviously – they’re too smart for that.
The White House is certainly correct in its understanding that a military strike, by most estimates, would have only delayed an Iranian nuclear program by two or three years, maybe longer with continued strikes and heightened sanctions.
But knowledge can’t be bombed, and eventually Iran would have rebuilt, further underground, and this time with a more pressing reason to do so. So, if this deal staves off an Iranian bomb for at least a decade, if not more, then its success does indeed extend beyond a military strike.
Nonetheless, let it be clear that despite White House rhetoric to the contrary, this deal does not “solve” the Iranian nuclear challenge, it only delays it. The deal essentially trades sanctions relief and international legitimacy for Iran’s nuclear program for a 15-year freeze on that program – elegantly kicking the can down the road to whoever will occupy the Oval Office in 2030.
No better alternatives
But even with all its faults and limitations, the problem is at this point there really are no better alternatives.
A stronger American leadership or a more skilled negotiating team might have wrested a few more concessions from Iran. But Congress and the American public were left largely in the dark until it was too late to influence the deal’s outcome.
Those advocating to walk away, reapply pressure and secure a “better deal” rely on two fundamental assumptions that may just not be correct. The first is the effect of sanctions on Iran’s economy and the second is the assumption that a return to the draconian sanctions regime of 2012-2013 is possible.
The limited effects of sanctions on Iran’s economy
Sanctions were hugely effective, combined with the threat of military action, in bringing Iran to the negotiating table in the first place. After the bellicose Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who finished his second term as president in 2013, the Iranian people “voted” into office the more congenial Hassan Rouhani. Politics are tricky in the Shi’ite Republic, and the real division of powers between the president and Supreme Leader Khamenei is murky. In Iran’s semi-democracy, presidential candidates are first vetted by the supreme leader and the theocratic elites before being allowed to campaign in largely “free and democratic” elections.
However, as Iran’s international isolation and economic troubles grew, the Iranian public grew impatient while the supreme leader realized the smiling face and Western education and mannerisms of Rouhani would serve as a timely solution to lift the sanctions from Iran and placate the public.
Inflation at the end of 2012 was near a whopping 40 percent. Unemployment rates between 2010 and 2014 continuously shifted between 12% and 14% for official rates, with unofficial rates likely higher and underemployment even more. The cutoff from the SWIFT system hampered mostly small and mid-size business owners, who now had a difficult time moving cash around or obtaining foreign currency; shipping sanctions limited the ability to import key items. While it also affected larger businesses, including the all-powerful quasi-governmental economic conglomerates in Iran, those were still generally able to devise ways to continue functioning, albeit with a sizable chunk of profits going to sanctions-circumventing middle-men. It’s safe to say that the average Iranian was hurting far more than the government or IRGC-connected businessmen.
But even this claim only holds so much water. It was not as if the Iranian economy had shut down. The real trade sanctions were only in the US and EU, while India, China and Korea for the most part continued with business as usual. Rather than getting premium technologies and industrial parts from the West, Iran was “getting by” with lower quality products from the East, not to mention the option of rerouting exports through other countries like Turkey and Iraq, at a price of course. And, having had their oil exports slashed in half, Iran, whose economy was already diversified if outdated, began realizing this might be a good opportunity to push forward the non-petroleum based sectors of its economy.
It may be that the US buckled to legendary Iranian “bazaar-honed” bargaining tactics and caved in on far more Iranian demands than the opposite. But most of the deal’s critics exaggerate how much more Iran could have been pushed. At the end of the day, determined countries with enough home-grown raw materials and know-how will achieve their rogue goals so long as they are willing to pay the price.
Iran, of any country, was poised to continue paying a price, and had enough breathing room to bargain in the manner which it did.
Multi-lateral sanctions regimes and Western resolve
However, it is the second point that is far more worrying. The White House was certain that the international community would not be willing to return to the sanctions placed on Iran, and it seems that the current US administration itself would not be the ones to push the matter.
President Barack Obama, in a recent interview with Tom Friedman, admits something that seems to have gone overlooked: “In the absence of a deal, our ability to sustain these sanctions was not in the cards... it’s not just Iran that paid a price for sanctions. China, Japan, South Korea, India – pretty much any oil importer around the world that had previously import arrangements from Iran – found themselves in a situation where this was costing them billions of dollars to sustain these sanctions. In some ways, the United States paid the lowest price for maintenance of sanctions, because we didn’t do business with Iran in the first place. They [US allies] made a significant sacrifice... because my administration... [was] able to persuade them that the only way to resolve this nuclear issue problem was to make these sanctions bite. And if they saw us walking away from what technical experts believe is a legitimate mechanism to ensure that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon – if they saw that our diplomatic efforts were not sincere... those sanctions would start falling apart very rapidly.”
Secretary of State Kerry echoed this very thinking in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic, as did Secretary of Treasury Jack Lew in The New York Times.
The assumption that the US-led international community, especially the EU but also East Asia’s major oil importers and financial hubs, and key industrialized allies like Canada and Australia, would continue to support a draconian sanctions regime is flawed (except maybe regarding Canada).
As we have learned on so many other issues of international security, the resolve of the international community is a fickle thing, especially when Iran never really posed a direct nor immediate threat to most of these countries.
The complex and multi-tiered sanctions empire was built not in a day, but over the course of a decade. Its construction involved a careful combination of the more ideologically pro-West countries who jumped in, together with sometimes less than subtle need to cajole the rest of the world on the part of the US State and Treasury representatives, who made it clear that it is more beneficial to financially be America’s friend than that of Iran. And even then, as they did in the past, most of these countries complained and dragged their feet at the thought of limited business opportunities each time the US Congress kept upping the bar on Iran sanctions.
Obama’s and Kerry’s remarks, however, now teach us that something has changed, telling and worrying at the same time: the US-led sanctions architecture could no longer be maintained. Most of the countries supporting it would be satisfied with the deal on the table – maybe almost any deal that would have been reached, since it achieved a delicate balance in mitigating the non-imminent Iranian threat to them and the achievement of some sort of Iran deal that pushes said threat even further down the road, and allows them to get back to business with the most significant market in the Middle East.
After all, countries rarely go to war and are adverse to forgoing billions in trade over non-imminent threats, no matter how serious they are.
This realization is sobering. The vast sanctions program upheld for nearly 10 years shows the power and potential of galvanizing the international community to apply non-violent coercion in order to achieve foreign policy goals. At the same time, it also shows the limitation of such tools when facing determined and large countries. There is little escape from the reality that even with this deal, if Iran does not change its intentions, the US (or Israel) will eventually need to resort to using force in order to ensure Iran never achieves a nuclear weapon.
More sobering is the second realization – that the American president and his team did not feel they could continue to maintain an international coalition against the world’s foremost sponsor of terrorism and its nuclear program, a country which routinely calls “Death to America” and to America’s key Middle Eastern ally (and backs up those calls with action). What does this say about the resolve of American leadership, and the West in general, to maintain global order in the face of intransigence and radicalism?
Looking ahead – containment and resolve
As it stands, the deal’s opponents should continue making their case until the vote is cast in Congress; that is how diplomatic treaties of this magnitude in a democracy should be managed, and it sends a clear message to Tehran that at least half of Washington maintains the necessary resolve regarding Iran. But as this deal will likely pass Congress, once it does, opponents and proponents alike should focus their efforts on implementing the agreement aggressively and demanding Iran be held fully accountable for any transgressions.
If done so, it will at least deny Iran a nuclear program for the duration of the deal.
More importantly, as the deal is not meant to tackle non-nuclear issues, such as Iran’s regional trouble- making, the US would be wise to stand by its Middle Eastern allies concerned they’ve been thrown under the bus, and aggressively seek to contain and counter Iran’s nefarious behavior. As President Obama says in the same interview with Tom Friedman, “they’re still going to be sponsoring terrorism, and they’re going to get sanctions relief. And so they’re going to have more money to engage in these bad activities...and we are going to have to systematically guard against that and work with our allies... to stop the work they are doing outside of the nuclear program.”
Many of the deal’s critics, especially in Israel, are (rightly) concerned that in the name of upholding the agreement, the US will allow an increasingly emboldened Iran freer rein to advance its hegemonic aspirations.
The US, throughout this entire period and beyond, must lead and support its allies in the region to stand firm against Iran’s regional aggression and expansion, all the while pushing for greater moderation and reform in the Islamic Republic. If Iran does not feel obligated to unclench its fist on non-nuclear matters, the US’s outstretched hand will have to re-clench itself.
In the meantime, it should be absolutely clear that this deal does not “solve” the problem, but only pushes it down the road. And if Iran has not changed its ways by then, the US and the West will once again be faced with a test of resolve, and on a much bigger scale.
The author is a Fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute. He is a major (reserves) in the Israel Defense Forces, where he served as a foreign policy and national security planner and advisor, and was an analyst in Israeli Defense Intelligence.
For more on the Iran Deal:
Congress’s Iran dilemma: Weighing the president’s conflicting messages
My daughter and Iran
Missile defense central to Iran deal
Iran’s old-new role in the region
The price President Obama will demand from Israel for increased military aid after the JCPOA