Monday, December 23, 2013

More Sanctions for Iran? Why not.

So, there is a regime of sanctions that has crippled Iran’s economy, with the result that Secretary of State John Kerry has managed to get Iran to negotiate a stand down from their nuclear weapons program. Everybody with the good sense God gave animal crackers has made the observation that the Iranians cannot be trusted. Also, the sun rises in the east. Both observations are true, but since the interim agreement does not rely on trust, both are also useless in the context of new sanctions.

Rather than rely on trust, the interim deal provides daily access to Natanz and Fordo sites to IAEA inspectors and access to other facilities, mines and mills. The inspectors will be able to confirm compliance or report breaches of the other obligations imposed on Iran, namely:

·         Halt enrichment of uranium above 5% purity. (Uranium enriched to 3.5-5% can be used for nuclear power reactors, 20% for nuclear medicines and 90% for a nuclear bomb.)
·         “Neutralize” its stockpile of near-20%-enriched uranium, either by diluting it to less than 5% or converting it to a form which cannot be further enriched
·         Not install any more centrifuges (the machines used to enrich uranium)
·         Leave half to three-quarters of centrifuges installed in Natanz and Fordo enrichment facilities inoperable
·         Not build any more enrichment facilities
·         Not increase its stockpile of 3.5% low-enriched uranium
·         Halt work on the construction of its heavy-water reactor at Arak, not attempt to produce plutonium there (an alternative to highly enriched uranium used for an atomic weapon)
·         Provide “long-sought” information on the Arak reactor and other data
To put it mildly, this was a huge achievement. When Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu drew a red line on a cartoon bomb at the United Nations, he said that Iran must not be allowed to go any further than that. The interim agreement more than meets his demand at least as long as it holds up.

On the other side of the negotiation is the P5+1 (viz., five permanent members of the UN Security Council, namely United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom, and France, plus Germany.) In return for the foregoing promises, the P5+1 has agreed to a “limited, temporary, targeted, and reversible” relaxation of the sanctions regime. Additionally the U.S. has agreed to transfer about $4.2 billion to Iran in installments from assets seized by the U.S. government from sales of its oil.

A key commitment that the P5+1 made is that it would not impose further nuclear-related sanctions if Iran meets its commitments. Now, several in Congress, including Senators Begich and Murkowsky and 22 other senators, want to impose further sanctions, a move which the Iranians say will queer the deal.

The supporters of new sanctions say that they will be conditional, i.e. would only go into effect if the Iranians fail to live up to their agreement. It is passing strange indeed, that the number one argument in favor of these new sanctions is that they are a hollow gesture. After all, is there anyone in his right mind who thinks that if the Iranians breach the interim deal, America and her allies will have any difficulty imposing new and harsher sanctions? And above and beyond that, the President of the United States has said he will veto the new sanctions bill, even if it were to pass through Congress.

So, there are no benefits to the bill to impose new sanctions. But, and my grandmother once said, “What could it hurt?”

Maybe Congress can over-ride his veto. But to what avail? In the end it is still a meaningless gesture and the debate attendant to a veto override will merely highlight to the Iranians the lack of unanimity in the Congress. If there is a fight over a veto over-ride, along the way, you can expect to see the usual accusations made in some quarters that the U.S. Congress and/or the President are controlled by AIPAC and the Jews. Pollyannas who don’t believe that there is a latent strain of anti-Semitism in America don’t worry about the effects of this kind of talk. I do.

Iran has asserted that if the new sanctions are passed in Congress, they will consider the interim deal breached and proceed accordingly. They express the view that it is a sign that Congress is not interested in a negotiated settlement. This latter point is not irrational, since there are many, including PM Netanyahu, who seem to believe that no deal is a good deal, and that war is the only response to the current regime.

The Wall Street Journal argues that Iran’s position is either a bluff, or a sign that it is looking for an excuse to break off negotiations. From there, it makes the extraordinary leap that we should therefore call the bluff, give Iran an excuse to break off negotiations and then … well, they don’t really tell us what to do then.

The supporters of the new sanctions claim they are a means of strengthening the President’s hand in his negotiations with the Iranians. It is quite obvious that this is a transparent after-the-fact rationalization. The President and Secretary Kerry are opposed to the sanctions bill, and presumably they know whether or not they need the help. Moreover, since when is it a sign of strength to tell your negotiating partner your next step if they fail to comply with your last demand? Rather it is a limitation on what the President will do, since presumably a bunker-busting strike and/or a decapitation strike is not off the table, at least until Congress dictates a different response.

There is another risk, that none of the supporters of sanctions have talked about. The U.S. has managed to persuade the EU, Russia, China, South Korea, and Japan to adhere to a steadily escalating catalogue of sanctions against Iran. These sanctions have been so damaging to the Iranian economy that the regime is now engaged in negotiations to end its nuclear weapons program. How has the U.S. been able to pressure the Europeans and the Asians to adhere to these severe sanctions?

A key has been to portray the Iranians as the crazies, the intransigents, and the blood-thirsty. The Iranians have helped lend credibility to this portrayal every chance they got with wild rhetoric and holocaust denial, etc. But that could change. The Iranians, having signed onto an interim accord could say with some credibility that the U.S. is being unreasonable, unwilling to take ‘yes’ for an answer, and thereby undermine the cooperation that is the bulwark of the current sanctions regime. If Iran can peel off just one or two of the Europeans/Asians, they can buy some more time to advance to a place where they can make a sprint for the bomb. At that point, it is game over.

American interests in the deal are broadly to keep Iran from getting a bomb, fulfill its moral obligation to defend Israel, and support our nominal ally, Saudi Arabia, who is Iran’s main regional competitor. If Iran obtains a bomb the Saudis, and the Jordanians would probably be compelled to seek nuclear weapons as well. These risks are unacceptable, as is the potential for Iranian nukes to fall into the hands of terrorists.

For the foregoing reasons, if Iran cannot be compelled to disavow its nuclear ambitions, there is no alternative to a military option, either by the U.S. or by Israel. Those who don’t trust President Obama to put into place crippling sanctions if the negotiations are not productive, argue that they can trust the U.S. to go to war for Israel. Beyond the fact that it is illogical, it must be observed that even if the President did undertake to go to war to destroy Iran’s nuclear bomb capability, Congress and the American people might not support him. Consider the fact that the President was rebuffed by Congress in his effort to use the military to disarm Syria of her chemical warfare capabilities and the idea was wildly unpopular.

It is true that many Republicans will do anything to see that the President fails. (Witness the unwillingness of Republican governors to take Federal money to expand Medicaid in their states.) But on matters of foreign policy there is a strong tradition and a good reason for entrusting it to the executive branch. Especially when, as now, he has accomplished so much that is so positive.

"... and tell 'em Big Mitch sent ya!"

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