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Actual decisions needed on Iran

As Washington enjoys its mid-August hiatus, a new, misleading narrative has started to emerge about the Iran nuclear deal: voting against the deal is consequence-free. Nothing will change if Congress rejects the Iran deal. Negotiators will return to work on a revised text, perhaps with some nasty words for the U.S. side. Iran will stay pat with its nuclear program. And, sanctions enforcement will continue to keep most business out of Iran without rocking the global economic boat.  

It is easy to see why this narrative is attractive. It puts off uncomfortable decisions and ensures that maximum political benefit can be garnered in talking tough about Iran. But, global diplomacy is not like the U.S. budget: shut-downs and continuing resolutions are poor models for international diplomacy, which involves countries with their own politics, interests, and problems.  If we are to be serious about preventing Iran from having a nuclear weapon, we need to ensure that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) enters into force, on time, and with enough support to weather the inevitable implementation problems that will come up.

{mosads}Opponents of the deal understand that they can no longer win on the merits of the nuclear concessions granted by Iran for the initial 10-15 years. Even the most skeptical of them is prepared to concede that, perhaps with the exception of the covert path, the JCPOA is an effective deal, if enforced properly. 

Instead, their arguments have basically centered on three points: 1) the deal should be longer in duration, 2) the deal should include inspection authorities to deal with the covert path, rivaling what the United States achieved in Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, and 3) the deal should not include sanctions relief that will enable Iran to support terrorism and improve its economy. 

To achieve this, many skeptics have suggested that Congress reject the deal and send John Kerry back to Europe to get just a few improvements. Some of these are quite sensible in their own right, from a U.S. perspective. But, commentators seem to believe that the United States didn’t try any of these ideas before concluding the deal reached on July 14. They are wrong. I was there. The United States sought longer restrictions. The United States sought a shorter process for inspections. And sanctions relief has always been part of the nuclear bargain: see the penultimate paragraph of Bush-era UN Security Council resolution 1737. What exists in the JCPOA is what negotiations are capable of producing. 

Some have argued that more pressure could achieve a stronger deal that meets the three mentioned criteria. Some opponents of the deal have suggested that a massive escalation of sanctions ought to be pursued. They ignore the fact that the sanctions campaign that the United States undertook from 2005-2013 was difficult enough to achieve while the Iranians were refusing to negotiate seriously. Achieving voluntary, tougher sanctions – with the impact the sanctions would have on foreign economies – would be impossible. So, instead, we would have to threaten and perhaps act on sanctions against not only Iranian companies but also European, Korean, Indian, Japanese, and Chinese companies and banks. This is not economic warfare with Iran but with major U.S. trading partners and some of the world’s largest economies.  Cutting off business with these would also cost the U.S. economy. Some skeptics have acknowledged this and suggested that, in the face of partner opposition, the President could use his “prosecutorial discretion” to not enforce sanctions as vigorously as he otherwise might. But, how exactly would this improve the pressure on Iran to deliver a better deal?  

Quite simply, it would not. Instead, we would have weakened sanctions, without a nuclear deal, and with the rest of the international community convinced that no deal would pass Congressional muster. This means, at best, 14 months of inaction on the file while Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile grows. At worst, Iran would react – as, indeed, the United States probably would – by declaring bad faith on the part of the United States and a resumption of its nuclear expansion all-round. It is unlikely that opponents of a deal would react to an Iranian nuclear expansion with placid calm. And it is this scenario that the President suggested is most likely in his speech on August 5 at American University: escalation that leads, in the end, to military conflict.  

Moreover, it is hard to take at face value the argument that it’s the content of this deal – rather than a deal itself – that is the problem, given how much opposition is targeted at the idea of sanctions relief enabling Iranian economic “resilience” or terrorism. Would an extra five years of centrifuge restrictions erase this problem? Would access granted to suspect sites within 2 hours? So, it is not the case that Kerry would need to return to Europe to tweak a few details or buy a few more years. What’s in mind for opponents is a whole-scale rewrite and, as such, it is disingenuous for them to suggest that the deal falls short for want of a few extra years of restrictions. 

The deal negotiated is what was achievable. On balance, it improves regional stability and reduces the risk of a nuclear arms race, starting in Iran. It merits Congressional support.

Nephew is the program director for Economic Statecraft, Sanctions and Energy Markets at the Center on Global Energy Policy. Prior to joining the Center in February 2015, Nephew served as principal deputy coordinator for Sanctions Policy at the Department of State, a position he assumed in February 2013. Nephew also served as the lead sanctions expert for the U.S. team negotiating with Iran, and from May 2011 to January 2013, he was the director for Iran on the National Security Staff where he was responsible for managing a period of intense expansion of U.S. sanctions on Iran.

Tags John Kerry

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