The kerfuffle over congressional moves to impose additional sanctions on Iran is obscuring a question that requires attention. Have the US and EU understood that the nuclear negotiations will not yield the non-proliferation measures that the US and EU need if they refuse Iran the sanctions relief that Iran needs?
Recent statements by President Obama and an op-ed by the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany leave room for doubt on that score. There is a risk that the US and EU believe that they can get a comprehensive agreement by offering to suspend, not lift sanctions, and by back-loading the bulk of relief.
Let us suppose that from the day a comprehensive agreement enters into force Iran is ready to send all its low-enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia; to operate no more than 9,400 first-generation centrifuges for the next 15 years; to keep the U235 content of its LEU to 5% or less; to freeze its centrifuge development work for at least ten years; to refrain from acquiring any capacity to reprocess nuclear fuel; and to grant the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) the access to enrichment facilities and centrifuge workshops that the IAEA has had under interim the Joint Plan of Action.
Such a raft of voluntary measures (“voluntary” because Iran is under no legal obligation to offer any of these) would give the US and EU, from day one, the greater part of what they need. The measures would enable the US and EU to feel confident about Iran not ‘breaking out’ with its 9,400 centrifuges. They would allow a long period to test the assumption that Iran’s leaders are not minded to acquire nuclear weapons.
In such circumstances, would the US and EU be justified in holding back the greater part of the benefits of sanctions relief? Would back-loading the bulk of sanctions relief be reasonable?
No, what would be reasonable would be to give Iran up-front relief from the EU sanctions and US secondary sanctions that were imposed at the end of 2011 and in early 2012, as well as access to the SWIFT inter-bank settlement system. Those measures constitute the greater part of the sanctions burden on Iran.
That would not preclude holding back other forms of relief and offering them only progressively, in return for Iran implementing measures that cannot be implemented as soon as the comprehensive agreement enters into force.
Examples of this second group of voluntary measures include: modifications to the reactor at Arak; the conversion of Fordow into a test facility; the incorporation of all 20% LEU into reactor fuel plates; the resolution of questions about past nuclear-related research; the ratification of an Additional Protocol; and cooperation so that the IAEA can offer assurances that there are no undeclared nuclear activities or material in Iran.
For those measures, relief can be provided through the progressive unfreezing of Iranian funds abroad, the progressive repeal of UN sanctions, and the repeal of US primary sanctions.
It’s not just excessive back-loading that threatens the goal of a comprehensive agreement. It’s also a belief that the suspension of sanctions will be enough and that amending legislation (lifting) can be avoided.
The case for lifting is simple: European and Asian banks and large companies will be wary of re-engaging the Iranian market on the basis of suspension. Suspension will not give sufficient protection against the potential consequences of a change of administration in the US or disruptive initiatives on Capitol Hill.
A case made for suspension is that Iran may cease implementing one or more of its commitments, triggering a need to re-impose sanctions. But if Iran defaults, Congress will be happy to legislate to re-impose; and the EU Council of Ministers will know its duty.
Another argument is that the US administration, knowing the mood of Congress, would be foolish to offer what Congress will refuse: the repeal of certain sanctions. That argument ought to be tested empirically. It may well be wrong. A comprehensive agreement that visibly serves US interests can win the support of the US public and, if it does, surely Congress will be loath to defy its electoral base?
There is also the argument that the US can get most of what it needs by further extensions to the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) in return for unfreezing a few hundred million a month of Iranian funds, leaving all other sanctions intact.
That is delusional. Iran agreed to the JPOA, in return for much less relief than they needed, because it appeared to be a precursor to a comprehensive agreement, under which Iran would get major relief. If a comprehensive agreement ceases to be a realistic prospect, Iran will resist any further extensions to the JPOA.
There’s an old English saying: “Don’t spoil the ship for a ha’p’orth of tar.” A proliferation-proof deal with Iran is there to be had, but this prize will evaporate if the US and EU cling to their beloved sanctions like a miser to his hoard of gold.