Back to Reality on Iran

Trudy Rubin, in her column Monday, wrote “American politicians seem incapable of appraising nuclear talks with Tehran with a cool head” and, taking it upon herself to cut through the clutter, decided “Both opponents and proponents of the deal could benefit from a reality check.” It isn’t everyday one can find a writer who is willing to take a sane approach towards the US’s Iran policy and so I thought I’d dissect Rubin’s piece to see how her reality check holds up. Her critique isn’t particularly ambitious–she makes all of the same points that critics of the Kirk-Menendez bill have been making for weeks now—except when she included Kenneth Pollack’s  most welcome recognition  that “The real choice is between going to war and containing Iran.” Rubin notes “Pollack would choose containment” without also decidedly coming down in favor of it. But by concluding that “all options are risky” and “holding out for the perfect will eliminate any chance for a reasonable deal” her assessment is sounder than any politician in Washington.

That said, however, Rubin’s piece is in need of some tweaking—a check for the reality checker. Yes, she’s right that new sanctions “would kill the talks” but that is a half-truth. It would kill this round of talks, after which the P5 nations would punt the U.S. out of the coalition and negotiate with Iran their own way. Even assuming the worst case scenario where Iran refuses to talk anymore with the P5, the Islamic Republic is determined enough to convince its neighbors of the peaceful intent of its nuclear program that it would work with them instead. Peter Jenkins reminds us that “like the members of Euratom in the 1950s, the Gulf states, Iran and Turkey could agree on a mutual nuclear-monitoring arrangement or a sub-regional [nuclear] weapons-free zone.” She, like everyone else who is pro-diplomacy, unfortunately falls for the facile narrative that it was sanctions that brought Iran to the table (more on why that position is wrong later). And lastly there is a potential non-sequitur to address.

Rubin writes “The Iranians have made very clear that they will never totally give up their capacity to enrich, which they are entitled to if–a big if–they convince the world their program is peaceful.” Then in the next sentence she adds “There are many provisos that concerned senators could call for in a final agreement in order to delimit the Iranian program.” It doesn’t quite follow, for if the Iranians can convince the world that there never was a military dimension to their nuclear program, why does it need to be constricted? Once Iran completely comes clean about their past nuclear activities, their program should then be treated like any other nation’s program and be able to develop without suspicion. I suppose Rubin could be concerned about the Iranian program’s expansion from a non-proliferation standpoint or is worried about a future Fukushima disaster (Iran is prone to earthquakes). But I suspect it’s because she knows that after a final deal Iran would still require containing.

Other writers are joining Rubin as part of a growing trend of composing sober analyses of the matter in which it’s being realized that Iran will always have the bomb option. Jessica Matthews wrote “A negotiated agreement would be imperfect. Sustained vigilance would be required, and a degree of risk would remain, for an agreement would be a compromise, not a surrender.” Graham Allison hammered the point home, writing “No matter what agreement the current Iranian government signs, or what actions it takes, a future government will always have the option to reverse course.” They’re entirely right so what is to be done? Iran could be contained but Washington could also give Khameini no reason to ever feel the need for an arsenal. Professor Stephen Walt, a foreign policy realist, recommends we dissuade Iran by voluntarily de-escalating the decades-long tension:

“If we want Iran to forgo nuclear weapons, for example, we should try to convince Tehran we’re not going to bomb Iran and not going to try to overthrow the government. If we did that, the Iranians would feel less need for either an active deterrent or a short timeline breakout capability. Bombing won’t accomplish much and we probably couldn’t overthrow them if we tried, but we certainly have the capacity to attempt either one. So how can we convince Tehran that we won’t exercise either option? In theory, President Barack Obama could make an explicit statement to that effect, or the two states could even sign some sort of “nonaggression” pact… The United States could also draw down its forces in the Persian Gulf region as a sign of good faith, but that’s going to drive our other regional allies bonkers and would be quite imprudent in the short term. It’s a tricky problem, but isn’t it interesting that we seem to spend all our time thinking about how to make our threats credible, instead of thinking just as hard about how we could make our assurances equally convincing?”

In the end, détente with Iran is the surety that will keep them from the bomb and following Walt’s advice would be a helpful stepping-stone to eventually getting there. Détente will involve tackling all the other issues the U.S. has with Iran which is more formidable than it sounds. Iran already put all of these up for discussion back in 2003 so surely they would negotiate them again with a U.S. that has become increasingly more trustworthy after the final deal. This may take some time–the U.S. would have to calm down its distraught allies–but for now let’s keep listening to the realists  and building on their insights so we can finally solve what Gareth Porter has dubbed a “manufactured crisis”.

Time to End Sanctions Fest Against Iran

The Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013, sponsored by Senators Mark Kirk and Robert Menendez, has so far gained 59 co-sponsors, which will not be enough to override the presidential veto that awaits it should the bill happen to make it onto the Senate floor. Why is Obama determined to jettison this congressional effort? In a letter to Menendez which reiterates the White House’s previous reasons for holding off on new sanctions, a group of foreign affairs luminaries warns him that this bill would have our P5+1 partners “conclude that the US is no longer proceeding in good faith in accord with the Joint Plan of Action” and  “could lead to an unraveling of the sanctions regime that the U.S. and its partners have so patiently built.” I could understand worrying about that first objection—diplomacy is the only route to a solution and who wants to see it possibly dragged out for several more years? But none should weep over the the sanctions falling to pieces since they are pointless, illegitimate, and counter-productive.

Ironically, diplomacy would be bolstered by this bill since it will be the last straw for the other P5 nations who have had enough of Washington’s obstructionism and have suffered economically by sanctioning Iran at the U.S.’s behest. They’ll have no qualms about showing the U.S. the door and conducting negotiations unencumbered by D.C. hardliners. Indeed, once they repeal their part of the sanctions regime, Iran will appreciate the let-up in pressure and the resultant goodwill from President Rouhani’s team would put the final deal on an even faster track. All the P5 would have to do is use the deal the EU3 nearly reached with Tehran in 2005 before Washington quashed it. Iran’s Foreign Minister still finds that offer acceptable. Now that I think on it I’d humorously suggest anyone who wants to put the Iran nuclear dispute to rest with all speed should be backing Kirk and Menendez.

The sanctions regime also needs to collapse because this pile of punitive measures is useless, having no power whatsoever to extort Iran into renouncing its civilian nuclear capabilities. Siegfried Hecker, director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1986 to 1997, has assessed that “Completely getting rid of the [Iranian] bomb option is not possible through military action or sanctions with political pressure. The only chance is through diplomatic means.” Peter Beinhart, a supporter of how the White House has employed sanctions, has just admitted they’re worthless by echoing me, writing “deal or no deal, Iran will be a threshold nuclear power, able to build a nuke relatively quickly whenever it wants.” What more could one say to totally undermine the efficacy and purpose of the sanctions? If the sanctions haven’t been enough over the years to sway Iran’s ambitions and still won’t be able to in any final deal as Beinhart correctly claims, then what possible point do they have?

Another aspect of the sanctions having no point is that the reason behind leveling them in the first place is bogus. Why must Iranian citizens be punished with sanctions that are without precedence in their harshness when their country has never been found to be in violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty? The most that Iran has ever done is dabble in nuclear weapons research and development—which is permitted under the NPT—which had been done covertly by the military, keeping the Khameini government in the dark. But all R&D projects were stopped by (now President) Hassan Rouhani when he became nuclear policy chief in 2003. Even then, the military wasn’t dashing for a bomb and agreed with the overarching policy that nuclear weapons capability was best, but was unsure as to what exactly that capability meant. Gareth Porter explains the ambiguity:

But the meaning of such a capability was the subject of ongoing debate. Nasser Hadian, a well-connected Tehran University political scientist, wrote in late 2003 about two schools of thought on the option of having a “nuclear weapons capability” but not the weapons themselves. One definition of that option was that Iran should have only the capability to produce fuel for nuclear reactors, Hadian explained, while the other called for Iran to have “all the necessary elements and capabilities for producing weapons”. That debate had evidently not been officially resolved by a government decision before Rouhani’s appointment.

Lastly, the sanctions, contrary to what their advocates believe, are acting against diplomacy. Iran hasn’t returned to the table because of the economic stranglehold but because they want to settle this issue since it benefits them to do so. Khameini stressed this last week when he said “The enemies think they imposed the embargo and forced Iran to negotiate. No! We have already said that if we see interest in particular topics, we will negotiate with this devil in order to eliminate trouble coming from it.” Nor is this tough talk by Iran’s Supreme Leader when 96% of 1,200 Iranians interviewed by Zogby Research Services support the civilian nuclear program and are willing to tolerate sanctions to retain it. Reza Marashi and Trita Parsi caution that thinking Iran’s eagerness for a deal is only because of sanctions “is a deep misread of how we got here and a very effective way of making sure this opportunity is lost.” There obviously must be more to Iran’s diplomatic shift than debilitating sanctions.

So let’s repeal these wholly unwarranted sanctions, which have been nothing but a waging of economic war against Iran so that others could profit.