America’s nuclear negotiators should walk away, right now. Immediately. Or stay, if they think the optics are better; but in any case, stop negotiating seriously with the Iranians about their nuclear program.
Tonight, March 31st is the new deadline for an agreement with Iran on the general principles of a deal, although there is now talk of extending it another day. It is also about 16 months after the initial agreement, and four months after the negotiators blew through the prior deadline and gave themselves an extension. Since then, Iran has received about $700 million per month in revenue that had previously been frozen under international sanctions. There is more to come.
At the end of the day, Iran’s nuclear program was never really the main problem. The main problem was Iran itself
The deal alarms people. It alarms the Israelis, or at least Likud and Netanyahu, who campaigned against it. It alarms much of the Senate, which has introduced bipartisan legislation to slow it down. And it alarms Europeans, like the French government, which is urging its negotiators to take a tougher line.
Most of that concern is focused on the number of centrifuges that Iran will reportedly be allowed to operate after the sanctions are lifted. The original plan, when the sanctions were introduced, was zero. Today, it is something like 6,000. And there may be a sunset clause, so that any restrictions would phase out after ten more years.
This is not a great deal. It would essentially sanctify Iran as an at-will nuclear power in a decade, with the vague hope that a new generation will come to power and be nicer. But in reality, even the original deal – zero centrifuges – would have been a bad deal. The sanctions should stay on regardless.
The UN passed four sanctions resolutions on Iran in response to its refusal to shut down its nuclear program, and gradually those sanctions began to bite.
At the end of the day, Iran’s nuclear program was never really the main problem. The main problem was Iran itself, or at least the aggressive foreign policy of its government. Since the clerical regime came to power in 1979, the United States and Iran have been locked in a competition for regional dominance in the Middle East. Iran is the largest and strongest Middle Eastern state; and by the logic of arithmetic, it should dominate the Persian Gulf. But because its foreign policy objectives are so antithetical to those of the West, and its government so regressive, the US has built a coalition to contain it, with the help of countries like Saudi Arabia.
It has not been easy to contain. The United States has little leverage over Iran, which began a masterful campaign of subversive warfare against the US since the Embassy hostage crisis in 1979. It has murdered dissidents around the world, Jews where it could find them, American citizens in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, and US troops in Iraq. But despite all the attacks, the United States was never successful in getting international sanctions put on Iran. It was frustrating, because it meant that most of its unilateral sanctions would have no bite. The US didn’t have much invested in Iran. But France, Germany, and Italy certainly did.
Finally, that began to change in 2002, when members of an Iranian dissident group revealed Iran’s secret – and illegal – uranium enrichment program. Though an Iran that hated the US and Israel wasn’t necessarily Europe’s problem, an Iran with nuclear weapons certainly was. As a result the International Atomic Energy Agency got involved, and then UN Security Council. The UN passed four sanctions resolutions on Iran in response to its refusal to shut down its nuclear program, and gradually those sanctions began to bite.
For the United States, the sanctions served two purposes. First, they probably did slow down Iran’s nuclear production. They made it harder to import materials, harder for those associated with its program to travel abroad, and eventually pushed the Iranian economy into free fall. But more critically, the sanctions cut away at the core source of Iran’s power – its economy – and thus hurt its ability to pursue all of its foreign policies, including its drive for regional dominance in the Persian Gulf. Under the nuclear sanctions, it was relatively costlier to sponsor terrorism. It was costlier to support Israel rejectionists like Hamas. It was costlier to joust with the Sunni statlets across the Persian Gulf. And thus it was harder overall to challenge the American status quo. Finally, the US had some leverage.
Of course, inasmuch as an Iran with a nuclear weapon is stronger than an Iran without one, the US should oppose it. And yes, there is a chance that the millenarian rhetoric of the mullahs is not just rhetoric, and they shouldn’t have a bomb for that reason either. But the core problem is that lifting the sanctions hamstrings US efforts to prevent the largest and strongest power in the Middle East from dominating the Middle East. Those sanctions, and the havoc they wreak on Iran’s economy, are a critical part of stopping it. Outside of a favorable regional settlement, including peace in Israel and Lebanon, or a truly democratic government coming to power in Iran, the US should make no move to lift them.
Andrew L. Peek was a strategic advisor to the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewLPeek