by Tytti Erästö
Opponents of the 2015 Iran nuclear accord have criticized the deal because it did not end uranium enrichment or limit missile development by Iran. With the Trump administration, some see an opportunity to undermine the agreement by imposing more non-nuclear sanctions on Iran. The assumption is that this could provoke Tehran to withdraw from the deal, snapping back the ‘crippling’ sanctions, which—according to common wisdom—brought the country to the negotiating table in 2013. Indeed, if such sanctions worked so well before, why could they not extract an even ‘better deal’ from Iran now? Others, such as the nominee for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, seem to want to go back to the previous policy of “no uranium enrichment in Iran,” at least after the deal expires.
The logic in both of these approaches is seriously flawed. Coercion will not work, not only because Europeans are unlikely to renew their support for the oil and financial sanctions, but also because the common wisdom about sanctions’ effectiveness is wrong. In reality, the coercive approach to Iran has repeatedly backfired, and crippling sanctions are no exception. As for Tillerson’s expectation that Iran would simply give up uranium enrichment in return for “access, the means, to peaceful uses of nuclear materials,” it too is based on a widely shared but biased interpretation of recent history, which routinely omits Iran’s bitter experiences of nuclear cooperation with international partners.
For almost four decades, the most remarkable effect of the various forms of US sanctions and pressure on Iran has been their role in breathing life into the Islamic Revolution. Instead of weakening the Iranian regime and modifying its behavior, this policy has pushed the country to demonstrate resilience in the face of adversity. With regard to non-proliferation, this pattern began to emerge in the late 1980s. At the time, the US started to undermine Iran’s nuclear energy cooperation with third parties, based on the view that it would be best if Iran did not have any kind of a nuclear program. The policy succeeded in almost totally blocking Iran’s access to open-market sources of civilian nuclear technology, leaving Russia as Tehran’s only nuclear partner. The strategy nevertheless failed to reach its objective of stopping Iran’s nuclear development. Paradoxically, it also drove Iran to the nuclear black market and contributed to its goal of maximizing self-sufficiency in the nuclear sector—including the production of nuclear fuel through an indigenous enrichment capacity.
Iran’s Nuclear Rationale
Fast forward to the early 2000s, when the nuclear crisis began with revelations of Iran’s undeclared uranium-enrichment facilities. Iran justified the secrecy in terms of a “quarter of a century of denial and deprivation,” which had left the country “with no option but to be discrete” about its nuclear activities. Although this explanation has largely been dismissed as a “cover story,” the role of the past policy of technology denial can hardly be denied as irrelevant to Iran’s subsequent nuclear ambitions. As Gareth Porter has noted, the US tendency to dismiss Iran’s reluctance to rely on foreign sources ignores “the well-documented history of blatant Russian violations of its contract with Iran on Bushehr—including the provision of nuclear fuel—and its effort to use Iranian dependence on Russian reactor fuel to squeeze Iran on its nuclear policy as well as to obtain political-military concessions from the United States.”
This seemingly trivial historical detail has significant implications for understanding Tehran’s insistence on its right to uranium enrichment today. Although nuclear hedging has arguably also motivated Iran’s nuclear activities, the country has a valid non-military reason to hold on to uranium enrichment. The failure to appreciate this fact—together with the political obstacles to diplomacy created by US-Iranian enmity—largely explains the impasse in the nuclear dispute until 2013. At the beginning of the crisis, Iran offered to negotiate a grand bargain with the US in 2003 and engaged in multilateral talks with the EU in 2003-2005. At the same time, it made clear it would not give up enrichment but was ready to discuss limitations to related activities. While other P5+1 partners and the International Atomic Energy Agency seemed open to this possibility at the time, the Bush administration scoffed at diplomacy, insisting that not one centrifuge should be spinning in Iran. Instead of exploring compromise solutions, the US used the opportunity to internationalize sanctions against Iran by pushing the case at the UN Security Council.
It is entirely possible that the subsequent escalation of the crisis could have been avoided had the US itself come to the table at this time—when Iran had not yet even mastered uranium enrichment. For example, the former White House Coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction, Gary Samore, has admitted that “one of the big unanswered questions” is whether the crisis could have been averted had the US been more supportive of the EU-3 during their 2003-2005 talks with Iran.
The UN sanctions resolutions imposed in 2006 made any negotiations conditional on the demand for Iran to suspend enrichment-related activities. Although Iran had agreed to that demand during its previous talks with the EU, the experience enforced the impression that the other side was merely seeking to prolong suspension and ultimately deny Iran the right to enrichment completely—indeed, why had this condition not been enough for the US before 2006? Together with the Bush administration’s penchant for regime change and Iran’s memories of technology denial, common sense suggested that giving in would have only encouraged more US pressure.
In effect, the parties were locked into irreconcilable and hardening positions, with seemingly no diplomatic way out. Although the situation certainly succeeded in isolating Tehran, the objective of international sanctions was not reached: Iran significantly expanded its nuclear program between 2006 and 2013. At the same time, the US and Israel resorted to threats of pre-emptive war. This was the most disastrous aspect of the coercive strategy, as it highlighted the importance of nuclear hedging from the Iranian perspective. Even worse, military threats pointed to the potential need to move beyond hedging to actually producing nuclear weapons to deter what seemed an increasingly imminent prospect of attack by two nuclear powers.
Obama Breaks the Cycle
Recognizing the impending catastrophe, President Obama sought to build trust and pledged to talk to Iran without conditions. The overall approach, however, initially remained unchanged, as it focused on making Iran compliant with the UN resolutions. It was only in 2012 when the Obama administration took the sovereign decision to break from the coercive pattern by testing the ground for compromise with Iran in secret negotiations. Note that this happened before Iran’s 2013 presidential elections (the results of which were arguably influenced by sanctions that boosted the victory of the moderate Hassan Rouhani). The secret talks allowed the two countries to step out from the tight constraints created by the politicized nuclear dispute, and remove ambiguity about their intentions. If Iran really did not want nuclear weapons but valued uranium enrichment for other reasons—and if the US prioritized non-proliferation over regime change—a mutually acceptable solution could be within reach.
In anticipation of this change of approach, in June 2013 the former U.S. Department of State special advisor for nonproliferation and arms control, Robert Einhorn, conceded in an interview that “It’s coming to the point where it would be advisable to explain to the Iranians what the end state would be […]. We’ve made hints […] that we can accept an enrichment program but we haven’t been explicit about that yet.” When the US for the first time publicly indicated that it could live with limited enrichment in Iran in autumn 2013, the door to formal negotiations opened, leading to a carefully balanced compromise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) less than two years later.
Clearly sanctions relief was and still is a key component of the JCPOA, and the Rouhani administration’s less confrontational diplomatic style certainly made nuclear negotiations easier. However, the real secret behind the diplomatic success was not sanctions, but the above-described shift in US strategy from coercion to compromise and trust-building. Rather than saying that sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table, it would thus be more correct to say that recognition of the failure of coercion pushed the US to try a different approach, which finally created room for genuine diplomatic give-and-take.
Although the biased narrative about the Iran sanctions success makes past US policy look good, it is also feeding the delusion that more coercion could now produce even more concessions from Iran. Setting the record straight is therefore important: the remarkable thing about the JCPOA is that it was reached despite all the mistrust and roadblocks to diplomacy created by sanctions and other forms of coercion. Although a new UN resolution has since reversed the previous Security Council demands, the fantasy of ending enrichment in Iran still lives on.
This brief look at the less appreciated parts of the recent history with Iran should clarify why more sanctions will not tilt the terms of the nuclear deal to US favor, and why the demand for no enrichment in Iran is a non-starter. What such policies would do instead is demonstrate to the Iranians that any attempt at diplomacy with the US is a fool’s game, empowering local hardliners who have been saying this all along. Of course, that might be exactly what their American counterparts are after, to prove that they, too, were right. However, if the new administration is serious about non-proliferation, it would do itself and regional allies a favor by not sacrificing a pragmatic arms control agreement for a return to a misguided policy that has consistently proven to be a recipe for failure.
Tytti Erästö, PhD, is the Roger L. Hale fellow at Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation. She is a former Stanton nuclear security fellow and research fellow in the Managing the Atom and International Security Research programs at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She is also the editor-in-chief of a Finnish world politics journal Kosmopolis and has worked as a researcher in Tampere Peace Research Institute and as university lecturer in the University of Tampere, Finland. Photo: nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson.