by Ali Gharib
Earlier this week, Yishai Schwartz, an associate editor at the legal blog Lawfare, put up a thoughtful post on the Iran nuclear negotiations proposing an alternative to making a nuclear deal with Iran. His proposal? Briefly stated, it is to more or less permanently extend the interim deal struck in November 2013, known as the Joint Plan of Action, or JPOA.
The notion holds a certain appeal that other alternatives lack, mostly for the reason Schwartz states: basically, there are no other alternatives on the table. Many proponents of the negotiations rightly fear that in the absence of a deal, Iran would have a free hand to expand its nuclear program, resulting in some sort of confrontation down the line. Schwartz’s proposal has the benefit of offering something else: continuing the restrictions on Iran’s program imposed by the JPOA and only conceding the limited sanctions relief it offers.
Schwartz claims that few critics of a deal articulate any alternative, let alone propose something like his plan. But that’s not quite right. In April, just after the announcement of a framework for a final comprehensive deal, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), one of the most rapacious Iran hawks in Congress, told CBS News he wanted to do just that. “Here is what I think we should do: continue the sanctions under the interim agreement,” he said. “That’s worked pretty well for the world. It has controlled Iran’s nuclear ambitions.”
Graham’s outline of the same proposal points to some of the reasons why, perhaps, so few Iran deal critics come right out with their alternatives: Graham’s articulation of exactly Schwartz’s plan was met with incredulity because it exposed his hypocrisy. After all, the senator had vociferously opposed the interim deal at the time and was forced to answer awkward questions about the change of heart.
Many of the deal’s critics would be in the same boat. How could, for example, the Wall Street Journal editorial board come out and say they want to indefinitely extend a deal they said was “worse than Munich“? It’s noteworthy that Schwartz’s proposal was highlighted in the newsletter of the right-wing Israel lobby group The Israel Project, whose head Josh Block has opposed any diplomacy with Iran, including the JPOA. Notably, Block’s very objection to the JPOA was that the status quo it produced allows Iran’s economy to recover, something that would, logic holds, be true of extending the JPOA indefinitely, too. In other words, you can’t extend the interim deal forever and also, as Schwartz thinks, maintain the most robust pressure on Iran’s economy.
And those aren’t the only ways that Schwartz’s proposal highlights the hypocrisy of many Iran deal critics. The idea also calls for continuing the nuclear talks unendingly. Here’s how Schwartz outlines that plan:
First, American negotiators would have to allow the current round of negotiations to fail, but without blowing up or reneging on any already-made commitments. […] Every few months, the sides will hold a summit and announce progress. Occasionally, limited sanctions relief will be exchanged for better inspections and increased constraints. In a few years, when memories have faded and sanctions are once again strangling the Iranian economy, we might pursue another comprehensive deal on more favorable terms.
That is, Schwartz proposes that America do exactly what critics of the deal have long accused Iran of doing: engaging in talks just for the sake of talks. (Critics have accused the Obama administration of giving too many concessions to keep talks alive in order to prevent the collapse of a major foreign policy initiative.)
Then there’s a related issue. Schwartz writes, “Even short of war, Iran’s interest in avoiding economy-wrecking sanctions of the sort prepared by Senators Kirk and Menendez are as strong today as they were six months or a year ago.” Sure, that’s fine from Iran’s side, but what about America’s? Even with a strong JPOA and Iran apparently engaged constructively at the table, Congress has been chomping at the bit to impose more “economy-wrecking sanctions” on Iran. Pushed by groups like AIPAC, the hawks on the Hill, of which there are many, have tried to do exactly that several times even though the JPOA prohibits new sanctions. What makes Schwartz think that the hawks will stop because of an indefinite extension of the interim agreement, especially if that extension is designed, as Schwartz has it, to make it look like Iranian intransigence led to the failure to reach a comprehensive accord?
If Talks Fail
None of that, however, speaks to the most salient concerns Schwartz’s plan should raise. In his post, he says, “The major question, of course, is what Iran will do if a deal is not signed by June 30. It is on this point that the warnings of the forthcoming deal’s backers have been at their most alarming”—predictions of an eventual confrontation. Schwartz isn’t quite convinced: “Iran’s interest in avoiding a dramatic escalation is at least as strong as ours. War would be costly for us, and even more for our regional allies. But it would costliest for Iran.” (This notion suggests that the Iranians are rational actors, the exact opposite of the point critics of diplomacy have been making for years.)
Schwartz accuses critics of a deal of taking too dour a view of what would happen if talks failed to yield a comprehensive agreement. But Schwartz’s proposal suffers from the mirror problem.
Just as proponents of war—of which there are many among Iran diplomacy’s critics (not that I’m accusing Schwartz of being one)—who take too rosy a view of military action’s potential consequences, Schwartz’s idea presumes the center can hold. Though, in fairness, he acknowledges that it’s “a seismic gamble,” one can’t help but wonder if he has considered the Iranian view of his plan.
How It Looks to the Iranians
When the interim agreement was announced in Geneva in 2013, as the press corps waited for a briefing from negotiators, I spoke to Abas Aslani, then the director general of world coverage for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard-affiliated Fars News Agency, and American diplomat Alan Eyre. Eyre suggested that the JPOA made for a balanced deal, but Aslani and I thought it was weighted towards American interests. The Iranian program would have concrete caps placed on it for a modicum of sanctions relief, some $10 billion over a year. As Graham said, “That’s worked pretty well for the world.”
Schwartz’s proposal, too, looks good from an American perspective:
In a few years, when memories have faded and sanctions are once again strangling the Iranian economy, we might pursue another comprehensive deal on more favorable terms. But more likely, we will continue to muddle along for years to come, exchanging limited relief for limited constraints—always keeping Iran from a nuclear capability, but never fully relaxing the vise.
This is all fine and dandy from an American perspective (now that critics have realized the JPOA was good for us). But I fail to see why the Iranians would take this all in stride. Keeping the harshest of the sanctions is clearly not, for Iran’s government, “a long-term, workable modus vivendi,” as Schwartz has it. Past is precedent here. The Iranians have rightly noted that the past decade of sanctions have seen their nuclear program expand rapidly despite the economic hardship. The last two years afforded an opportunity to incentivize Iran rolling back its program in exchange for relieving the crippling sanctions. The JPOA, from their perspective, was always meant as a way station on that course. They seem, to me, less likely to be willing to “muddle along” and more likely to revert to their old ways, taking a hit of around $10 billion a year in order to throw out the caps imposed by the JPOA.
This scenario looms especially large over Schwartz’s proposal because of Iran’s domestic politics—something critics of a deal perpetually fail to take into serious account. Hardliners in Iran have already, for two years, been sniping and attacking negotiations, attacking Iran’s moderate president Hassan Rouhani and his foreign minister Javad Zarif. For the moment, Iran’s chief hardliner, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, has backed his negotiating team, but with caution and reservations. What the JPOA held for Iran was a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s not clear that Khamenei will simply hang on if Iran fails to get closer to it. If the big prize—lifting the harshest sanctions—remains elusive, Iran’s incentive to check itself will fade.
“A breakdown in negotiations might lead to an immediate Iranian race for a weapon,” Schwartz acknowledges. But the real risk is that Iran will return to its path of incremental advances and building up its nuclear program. And we’ll be back where we were in 2010-12. The war chatter in Washington would be constantly growing louder but without the clear casus belli of an Iranian breakout. That’s a bind for us, not the Iranians.
“All choices carry risks,” Schwartz concludes. Yes, and it’s hard to see how the risks inherent in Schwartz’s proposal outweigh those of sealing a final nuclear accord.
Image: Lindsey Graham by DonkeyHotey via Flickr