Fuzzy Math From Iran Hawks

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by Ali Gharib

Being a Washington analyst means never having to say you’re sorry. And so it has been throughout the diplomatic process with Iran, where naysayers who stridently opposed talks have found themselves dealing with the reality of negotiations over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program by not dealing at all with their past records on the matter.

The best recent example of this phenomenon can be found in the latest report from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), one of the think-tank’s whose work and influence was discussed at length by myself and Eli Clifton in a feature for last week’s edition of The Nation.

Only days before Iran and world powers announced an extension of talks for an additional four months, FDD put out a report seeking to quantify the sanctions relief Iran had reaped from the first six months of the interim deal. What stands out most about the report is its fuzzy math, which leads it to fuzzy conclusions.

FDD’s report, “Sanctions Relief: What did Iran Get?,” posited that Iran’s sanctions relief has been greater than the Obama administration has let on. FDD offers that Iran has received some $11 billion in direct relief and even more in indirect relief — that is, the benefits Iran has accrued from its stabilizing economy (more on that in a bit).

That figure is at odds with what FDD’s executive director Mark Dubowitz predicted it would be after Iran and world powers inked an interim agreement in November, laying the groundwork for the current talks. At the time, the US left most of its sanctions in place but lifted its bans on certain types of transactions and unfroze a portion of Iranian assets abroad. The Obama administration said the deal would bring the Iranians about $7 billion in relief. Dubowtiz argued that direct sanctions relief alone — leaving aside any additional indirect benefits — would be closer to a windfall of $20 billion.

Now that the first six months of the interim agreement has run its course, Dubowitz revised his numbers downward by nearly half, to the $11 billion figure for direct sanctions relief. When asked about the discrepancy on Twitter, he deflected by claiming the distinction between direct and indirect relief — one he’d readily made in November, with inflated numbers — was “artificial.”

Even the $11 billion number needs to be carefully considered. For instance, in his recent analysis, Dubowitz includes the profits Iran has reaped from its sale of condensates, a liquid product formed when certain types of natural gas are pumped to the surface. FDD estimates that condensates accounted for about $5 billion of Iranian exports, a figure that was lumped into the $11 billion in direct relief.

But condensates, as FDD admits later in its analysis, were not exempted from sanctions by the Joint Plan of Action signed by Iran and world powers in Geneva in November. Instead, Iran is able to sell condensates because of what FDD calls a”loophole” in a 2011 sanctions law. Without the inclusion of $5 billion in condensate exports, Dubowitz’s figure of $11 billion in sanctions relief quickly falls below the Obama administration’s initial estimate of $7 billion.

What’s more, FDD’s analysis veers towards portraying all of Iran’s economic gains as stemming from the November deal. But that discounts the role played by the change in Iranian leadership last summer. As the Wall Street Journal reported recently, the administration of the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani,  has taken steps — such as raising interest rates and cutting subsidies—to stabilize the economy independent of any sanctions relief.

Notably, Dubowitz pooh-poohed Rouhani’s election as unimportant, a contention rendered implausible not only by the Iran’s improved economic management, but also by what all parties regard as serious Iranian engagement on the nuclear file.

The upshot of the FDD analysis is that the US must keep up pressure on Iran. With his past support for using sanctions as a tool of regime change — an all-too-frequent goal of sanctions hawks — one has to wonder if Dubowitz, as he claims, really wants for diplomacy to succeed or not.

*This article was first published by The Nation on July 21 and was reprinted here with permission. Copyright 2014, The Nation.

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Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.

5 Comments

  1. Khamenei apparently feels pressured to insist Iran be able to provide nuclear fuel to five nuclear power plants even if Iran has only one.

  2. Okay, not really sure what this all means in the broader context of where do we go from here? Talks are sunk because Iran wouldn’t budge on centrifuges it wants and the West wasn’t going to allow Iran to expand it. So I guess we are all going to back to square one and keep the sanctions in place, which is fine by me since I’m not all too cheery at the idea of guys like Khamenei with nukes. Never trust a guy who gets his advice from imaginary conversations with God. Same goes for the Pope!

  3. Great piece. And I very much doubt Dubowitz wants a deal to be achieved.

  4. Thank you Mr Gharib for this informative post. A proud Iranian-American, born in California and raised in D.C., educated too. If one listens to the naysayers, then one might also believe that Mr Gharib would endorse the course of action FDD espouses, but doesn’t. Ah, the land of the free speech, being able to say what’s on your mind, even if the government or its supporters don’t want to hear it.

  5. This sums it up: “Being a Washington analyst means never having to say you’re sorry.” I’d like to extend that description especially to neocons who have been wrong about just about EVERYTHING but they never pay even the smallest of consequences for their all their follies. They get to write more of their lame predictions and analysis, be wrong about them again, and be given airtime to influence the public with their purposefully erroneous “analysis” (if you can call it that) again. Their entire product line consists of a bunch of “f”s: fear, fiction, fantasy, fabrications, (and as this author correctly uses: fuzzy math), but never the f that matters most: facts.

    Even the name of this institution is a joke: Foundation In Defense of Democracies.

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