On April 17, President Obama called for “creative negotiations” that would allow the Iranian negotiators “to make a presentation to their body politic that is more acceptable.” He might have added that negotiations will have to be at least as creative to find a formula that will also acceptable to the American body politic. Critics of the previously announced framework might be forgiven for describing the process as “creative cosmetology in porcine beautification” aka putting lipstick on a pig. We would not be quite so harsh, but remain skeptical that the agreement with Iran, whatever its final terms might be, will prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. At the same time, we are also skeptical that rejecting the agreement, or attempting to significantly renegotiate its basic terms, would be any more effective in seeking that end.
The flaws in the framework agreement have been widely reported and discussed by various observers. One of the calmest, but most cogent, critiques appeared in an April 7 op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal authored by Henry Kissinger and George Schultz. Readers who missed their analysis when it was published are urged to read it in full here.
One of the most crucial terms of the agreement yet to be negotiated is the timing of the lifting of sanctions and provisions for the “snap back” of sanctions in the event of an Iranian violation. With respect to the lifting of sanctions, the experience after the announcement of the framework should give some pause to the wielders of diplomatic lipstick. The text of the framework agreement released by the United States stated that “U.S. and E.U. nuclear-related sanctions will be suspended after the IAEA has verified that Iran has taken all of its key nuclear-related steps.” Iran, however, has disputed that statement and appears to contend that all sanctions are to be lifted as soon as the final agreement is signed.
With respect to “snap back,” Kissinger and Schultz cautioned that:
Undertaking the “snap-back” of sanctions is unlikely to be as clear or as automatic as the phrase implies. Iran is in a position to violate the agreement by executive decision. Restoring the most effective sanctions will require coordinated international action. In countries that had reluctantly joined in previous rounds, the demands of public and commercial opinion will militate against automatic or even prompt “snap-back.” If the follow-on process does not unambiguously define the term, an attempt to reimpose sanctions risks primarily isolating America, not Iran.
President Obama also emphasized the importance of the snap-back provisions:
Our main concern here is making sure that if Iran doesn’t abide by its agreement, that we don’t have to jump through a whole bunch of hoops in order to reinstate sanctions. That’s our main concern and I think that goal of having in reserve the possibility of putting back and applying forceful sanctions in the event of a violation, that goal can be met.
For our part, we are even more dubious than Messrs Kissinger and Schultz as to the efficacy of the snap-back provisions. To begin with, it would depend on the active concurrence and cooperation of the other P5+1 members as well as the other countries that have participated in the sanctions regime. Even more fundamental is a point that has seemingly drawn little discussion. Even if one makes the questionable assumption that sanctions would be reimposed promptly, it is far from clear that doing so would force Iran back into compliance. On the contrary, having revitalized its economy by living for a period without sanctions, Iran might well decide that it could endure sanctions for a period long enough to acquire nuclear weaponry. Indeed, the Obama administration has recently acknowledged that despite the previous sanctions regime—and contrary to the administration’s previous assertions—Iran had enriched sufficient fuel to create a nuclear weapon within two or three months. (See BloombergView, “Obama Kept Iran’s Short Breakout Time a Secret”). Once acquired, such weaponry would permanently change the dynamics of future negotiations, if any.
Our pessimism does not lead us to join those who argue that the framework agreement must be significantly renegotiated or abandoned altogether. Such critics claim that stronger sanctions would lead Iran to make concessions that it has thus far withheld. Samuel Berger, however, has pointed out that the framework agreement is regarded as “sensible and positive” by countries that have supported sanctions in the past. Even if those countries are mistaken in that perception, as they may well be, they would not look sympathetically on American actions that cause the collapse of the agreement. In consequence, there is little likelihood that they would support continuing, let alone strengthening, sanctions against Iran. Politico, “The Fantasy of a Better Iran Deal.”
Although rejection of a final deal does not seem to be a promising option, we continue to believe that it is important for Congress to participate in the approval of a final deal, if one is reached, and we support the bill to that end for which Senator Corker skillfully obtained unanimous approval from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015). That bill inevitably had its editorial critics on both left and right. The New York Times termed the bill “reckless” and bitterly complained that the bill creates “new and potentially dangerous uncertainties for an agreement that offers the best chance of restraining that country’s nuclear program.” The Wall Street Journal, on the other hand, strenuously objected that the bill gives President Obama “nearly a free hand.” Nevertheless, our own view is that, assuming it is passed, the impact of the bill on negotiations is more likely to be positive than negative, and that the Congressional role, though not dispositive, is appropriate and is likely to be meaningful.
In exercising its right to express approval or disapproval pursuant to the Corker bill, we hope that Congress will act in a way that is pragmatic rather than ideological or political. On April 13, Bret Stephens set forth what he termed would be an “honest” argument that the President might make in favor of the agreement. It ran in part as follows:
“My fellow Americans, the deal we have negotiated will not, I am afraid, prevent Iran from getting a bomb, should its leaders decide to build one. And eventually they will. Fatwa or no fatwa, everything we know about their nuclear program tells us it is geared toward building a bomb. And frankly, if you lived in a neighborhood like theirs—70 million Shiites surrounded by hundreds of millions of Sunnis—you’d want a bomb, too.
“Yes, we could, in theory, stop Iran from getting the bomb. Sanctions won’t do it. Extreme privation didn’t stop Maoist China or Bhutto’s Pakistan or Kim’s North Korea from building a bomb. It won’t stop Iran, either.
“Airstrikes? They would set Iran back by a few years. But even in a best-case scenario, the Iranians would be back at it before long, and they’d keep trying until they got a bomb or we got regime change.
“Fellow Americans, how many of you want to raise your hands for more Mideast regime change?
“So here’s the deal with my deal: It never was about cutting off Iran’s pathways to a bomb. Let’s just say that was an aspiration. It’s about managing, and maybe slowing, the process by which they get one.
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Hopefully, the Supreme Leader will be replaced by a new leader cut from better cloth. Hopefully, too, this marathon diplomacy will open new patterns of U.S.-Iranian cooperation. But if neither thing happens we’d be no worse off than we are today.
We think that is about as close to an honest argument for the agreement as we have heard. Although Stephens quickly went on to make it clear that he found the argument unpersuasive, we were not impressed by his cursory pass at a counter-argument: “the U.S. tool kit of coercion is not so bare, the benefit of diplomacy isn’t so great, the threat of a nuclear Iran isn’t so manageable and Americans aren’t that eager to roll over for the ayatollah.” On the contrary, we are inclined to think that, on balance and depending on the final terms, a deal that has been approved by the P5+1 should probably not be rejected. In the meantime, U.S. negotiators should demand, and seek to persuade the other members of the P5+1 to demand, the most rigorous terms consistent with the framework agreement. Whether there is any place for creative cosmetology in that context remains to be seen.