Former Arms Control envoy Robert Joseph: Time for sanctions on Iran

Guest Commentary

President Obama’s assertion in the State of the Union address that American diplomacy has halted Iran’s nuclear program is a dangerous illusion. 

Tactically, the negotiated “plan of action” does require Iran to suspend enrichment beyond 5 percent and to either convert or blend down its stockpile of up to 20 percent enriched uranium. But this pause is only for six months unless Tehran agrees to extend the arrangement — and the conversion to oxide is easily reversed. Iranian spokesmen have stated that the restrictions could be reversed in a day. Iran’s foreign minister has emphasized that Tehran has not agreed to dismantle anything.

Strategically, the agreement places the negotiations on a path to failure. Not only does it fail to limit Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, it contributes to the further loss of confidence in U.S. credibility with friends and adversaries. The result could be more nuclear proliferation in the region.

Both approaches to acquiring fissile material for a nuclear weapon — enriched uranium and plutonium — are open to Iran under the arrangement. The agreement recognizes Iran’s right to enrich and permits it to conduct research, development and testing of advanced centrifuges that will be much more efficient and faster. Regarding plutonium, Iranian officials have said they will continue the construction of the Arak heavy water reactor. Unless a final agreement reverses these provisions, Iran will have succeeded again in buying more time to become a nuclear threshold state.

Most significantly, the primary leverage to achieve an acceptable diplomatic outcome has been undercut. Under the accord, Iran receives substantial relief from sanctions, including suspension of restrictions on petrochemical exports and imports; lifting sanctions on exports and imports of gold and other precious metals; and access to billions of dollars in currently restricted funds.

Despite talk of increasing sanctions if Tehran does not fulfill its commitments or if a final agreement is not reached, the sanctions regime, once breached, is going to be very difficult to reestablish. It took years to build, and won’t be easy the second time around. And no one knows this better than Iran.

Two months ago Iran was faced with the choice of stopping enrichment and construction of its plutonium reactor or facing increasingly severe sanctions. Today, Teheran may well think it can have it both ways: continuing to expand its nuclear activities and getting relief from sanctions. 

What is the best way to deal with the Iranian nuclear challenge? To start, sanctions need to be understood in a broader context. Beyond their economic impact, the sanctions were calling into question the competency and the very legitimacy of the theocratic regime. It’s this political effect that has moved the regime to take increasingly desperate measures.

Like all despotic governments, the mullahs’ first fear is that of their own people. It is not accidental that with the worsening economic conditions, the regime has undertaken even greater repression of its own citizens and brutally suppressed all dissent inside and, to the extent it can, outside Iran.

Since the election of the widely acclaimed moderate Hassan Rouhani, the number of executions in Iran have skyrocketed, including more than 20 political prisoners put to death. Attacks on the opposition outside Iran have also dramatically increased, with the brutal, in some cases execution-style murders of 52 members of the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) at Camp Ashraf in September and four missile attacks on their members in Camp Liberty with 14 dead and hundreds wounded.  

We need to avoid the coming trap of endless negotiations, arguing over such things as how many centrifuges Iran is permitted. Tehran has always used negotiations to buy time to expand its nuclear program coming ever closer to a nuclear weapon.

We must turn the desperation of an illegitimate regime into leverage. Through such measures envisioned in the bipartisan Menendez bill, Iran must know with certainty that additional penalties will be imposed if it does not abandon its nuclear weapons quest. Concern that Teheran will walk away from the talks if more sanctions are passed is misplaced. The real concern is that we will fall into the trap of endless negotiations while Iran moves ever closer to its goal.

We also need to take action to support the opposition, living up to American commitments to protect the MEK members while in Iraq and making every effort to resettle them as quickly as possible outside of Iraq, including in the United States, to remove them from certain future attacks condoned by if not orchestrated by the regime of Nouri al-Maliki.

We need to recognize that Iran is not pursuing negotiations for the sake of finding a mutually acceptable outcome. It plays to win and so must we. Here we must reestablish the “red lines” included in multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions — no enrichment, no plutonium reactor and full accounting of weaponization activities. Many observers have concluded that this is not feasible, that Iran will never agree. But to succeed diplomatically, the regime must be faced with the stark choice of giving up its nuclear pursuits or placing its existence as a regime at risk.

Almost everyone would like a diplomatic outcome. But it has to be the right diplomatic outcome — an outcome that prevents Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon that would intimidate its enemies and, in the eyes of Iran’s leaders, serve to preclude outside intervention in support of domestic opposition movements.The interim agreement makes the failure of diplomacy more, rather than less, likely. We need to give diplomacy the chance to succeed. If we fail, the stakes are enormous. The region and the world will be a much more dangerous place.

Joseph served as undersecretary of State for arms control and international security from 2005 until 2007.