Why Engagement, Come What May, Is the Best Policy for Dealing with Iran

After sixteen months of negotiations, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) reached April 2, 2015 is an exceptional milestone in the thirty-six years of fraught relations between the West and the Islamic Republic of Iran. However, according to a statement delivered by President Obama outlining the JCPOA, "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed," and plenty of hazards exist along the way to reaching an eventual comprehensive agreement by the current talks' stated deadline of June 30th.

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After sixteen months of negotiations, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) reached April 2, 2015 is an exceptional milestone in the thirty-six years of fraught relations between the West and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The JCPOA is an understanding that outlines a framework for an eventual deal between the P5+1 and Iran over the most proliferation-sensitive aspects of Iran’s nuclear program. It shuts down both Iran’s plutonium and uranium pathways to a nuclear weapon for at least the next decade by dismantling and replacing the core of the Arak heavy-water reactor; reducing Iran’s currently installed centrifuges by two-thirds; curtailing Iran’s future uranium enrichment capacity; allowing Iran to retain a mere 3% of its current stockpiles of enriched uranium; and subjecting Iran to the most intrusive and comprehensive verification and inspections measures ever put in place on a country’s nuclear program.

However, according to a statement delivered by President Obama outlining the JCPOA, “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” and plenty of hazards exist along the way to reaching an eventual comprehensive agreement by the current talks’ stated deadline of June 30th.

Potential pitfalls to this initial triumph of diplomacy may come from hard-liners within Iran. That Article IV of the NPT guarantees Iran the inherent right to enrich uranium and develop an indigenous nuclear fuel-cycle capability is a view widely held by Iranians of various political stripes, but most ardently by the regime’s hard-liners. Conservative elements within the regime—not to mention Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who has ultimate authority over any nuclear accord—may conclude that the limits placed on Iran’s nuclear program may be too much of a capitulation on Iran’s part. But the fact that Rouhani’s government was allowed to promote the JCPOA at Friday prayers the day after it was reached indicates that the agreement may enjoy the imprimatur of the Supreme Leader for the moment at least.

Iranian frustration over the likely slow pace of permanent lifting of sanctions as well as an underestimation of the procedural hurdles that would be involved in lifting U.S. sanctions on Iran in even the most friendly of Congresses may also pose a threat to the viability of a final agreement.

Equally if not more likely to threaten an eventual agreement is domestic congressional opposition. Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) has already cried appeasement, saying on April 2nd that, “Neville Chamberlain got a lot of more out of Hitler than Wendy Sherman [a top State Department negotiator] got out of Iran.” Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is hard at work on plans to draft a bipartisan bill that would demand congressional approval for any final agreement, raising the risk of injecting politics into the administration’s diplomatic dealings with Iran. And there is little doubt that Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR), the other 46 signatories on his recent open letter to the leaders of Iran, or any number of those in the sizeable coterie of legislators skeptical of a deal would quickly move to impose increased, diplomacy-scuttling sanctions at the first sign of Iranian intransigence.

In the coming months, and in the face of either possible scenario, it is essential that the Obama administration make the case for brokering a deal by continuing down the path of engagement in order to prevent Iran from acquiring the bomb.

Engagement in the event of Iranian opposition to a deal

Should opposition to a final deal come from inside Iran due to a failure to reach an agreement, a breakdown in negotiations is likely to result.

In the most recent installment of the PONI Live Debate Series, Georgetown University professor Dr. Matthew Kroenig and Cato Institute Senior Fellow Dr. Ted Galen Carpenter debated the course of action that should be taken in the event that the current talks fail to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue.

In the debate as well as in a recent article written for the Atlantic Council, Kroenig advocates a return to the pressure track through increased sanctions and an increase in the credibility of a military option should Iran dash to a nuclear breakout capability. Kroenig argues that Iran “only makes concessions when its back is against the wall,” and that an Iran “boxed in through a credible military threat” and subjected to mounting sanctions pressure would be most likely to strike a worthwhile nuclear deal.

On the other hand, Carpenter cautioned strongly against further sanctions in light of their questionable track record. Additionally, he argued that an Iran whose nuclear program were to advance to within a “screwdriver’s turn away” from a nuclear weapon would certainly be undesirable but not intolerable. In making this point, he drew parallels between Iran’s current nuclear ambitions and China’s nuclear program in the 1960s, against which a preventative attack enjoyed support on both sides of the aisle in Washington at the time. Once China crossed the nuclear threshold, Carpenter argues, dire predictions of nuclear conflict between China and the West failed to materialize and instead, China’s behavior and rhetoric actually moderated.

While both Kroenig and Carpenter pose valid points, it’s important to recognize the risks of being too sanguine about the ability of pressure to prevent Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold or the ability to contain and deal with a nuclear or near nuclear-armed Iran.

Kroenig points out that after sixteen months of negotiations, any failure of the P5+1 and Iran to reach a final accord will not be due to insufficient time. This assessment is correct—rather than insufficient time, failure to reach a final agreement by June 30th will be the result of the massive trust-deficit that has accumulated between Iran and the West since 1979. Under the JCPOA, both sides have made major compromises and any breakdown in negotiations in the coming months will be the result of one side’s lack of faith in the other to reciprocate its costly concessions.

The current negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 present a unique opportunity to correct this trust-deficit and a return to the pressure-track will undo any effort in that direction. Additionally, the ability of pressure to forestall an Iranian breakout is questionable at best. Despite the received wisdom of sanctions having brought Iran to the negotiating table, Iran has proved to be remarkably resilient in the face of economic pressure. Increasingly harsh Western sanctions over the past decade have only been met with defiance from Iran, with its nuclear program having advanced from only a few hundred centrifuges in the early 2000s to 19,000 today.

Should the current negotiations reach an impasse, talks be called off, the current sanctions relief be suspended, and further sanctions be imposed, Iran would likely frame the status quo in terms of loss. As a result, Iran is likely to restart and continue to advance its nuclear program as it has done in the past and frustrated western policymakers would more seriously weigh the undesirable option of a military strike. In the worst-case scenario of Iran actually acquiring the ability to deploy a nuclear arsenal, relations between Iran and the West would already be at an all-time low after the cessation of the talks and the costs and difficulty of negotiating a peaceful solution could be insurmountably high.

Victor Cha’s 2002 article in International Security, “Hawk Engagement and Preventive Defense on the Korean Peninsula,” advocates a policy of “containment-plus-engagement,” or “hawk engagement,” in confronting the then impending threat of nuclear proliferation in North Korea. Rather than pursuing a policy of isolation through diplomatic ostracism or coercion through increased sanctions or threatened military action, Cha’s hawk engagement applied to Iran would combine a robust defense posture on the part of the international community coupled with further conditional diplomatic and economic inducements aimed at curbing Iran’s proliferation threat and shaping Iran’s behavior in a more cooperative way.

In order to avoid Iranian opposition to a final deal before the June 30th deadline, the United States should commit to further engagement with Iran. Such engagement could come in the form of providing more upfront sanctions relief through an exercise of President Obama’s waiver authority to allow further temporary exemption from sanctions on Iran’s petroleum sector. Additionally, a greater portion of Iran’s $100 billion in oil revenues frozen in offshore accounts could be allowed to be repatriated.

In the event that both sides fail to reach a final deal by the June 30th deadline, an extension of the talks would be preferable to ceasing the negotiations and resorting to pressure. Such an extension should come with a commitment from the United States to again provide further, conditional economic inducements in exchange for Iran’s abiding by the restrictions and transparency measures outlined in the current Joint Plan of Action.

Under both scenarios, engaging Iran provides it with a greater stake in the status quo, raising the costs of any future acts of defiance. As Trita Parsi writes in The National Interest, engaging Iran would transform its incentives. It would be rendered less likely to oppose or renege on a deal, since the gains it would receive from reintegration into the political and economic structures of the global economy would be worth more than the pain it would endure from noncompliance.

Selling Engagement to a skeptical Congress

The most difficult part of engaging Iran, especially in the case of failure to reach a deal by June 30th, will be convincing Congress of the merits of this policy over pressure. Obama will all but certainly be likened to Neville Chamberlain, with engagement labeled appeasement and a sign of weakness of the West.

As Cha argues, engagement of this sort is not appeasement—it’s the “choice of the strong” rather than “the expediency of the weak.”

Engagement wouldn’t allow unrequited cooperation from Iran. Instead, it would be undertaken as a trust-building measure to head-off the possibility of Iranian opposition to the JCPOA or, if negotiators fail to reach a deal by the current deadline, as a means of keeping diplomatic channels open in exchange for Iran’s adherence to existing measures in place that have halted progress on its nuclear program and allowed for robust international inspections.

Furthermore, engaging Iran would set the stage for any necessary future punishment in two ways.

First, by allowing Iran to benefit from the ability to sell more of its petroleum products on the world market, a threat to remove these inducements will be more likely to illicit cooperation than an immediate threat to impose further sanctions under which Iran has proved resilient.

Second, engaging Iran now would help shore up support within the international community for forming a future coalition for punishing Iran if the need arises. Unilateral U.S. sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program have been in place since the mid 1990s, but the international community, through UN Security Council and European Union-imposed sanctions, only joined in pressuring Iran in 2006 in order to prevent the U.S. from proceeding down a path that looked increasingly likely to end in military conflict. In the wake of talks of further Congressional sanctions while the negotiations are still ongoing as well as the recent Cotton letter, the international community would likely place much of the blame for a failure to reach an agreement on the United States. Engaging Iran at this juncture would make it clear that every avenue for diplomatic resolution of the nuclear issue has been exhausted by the West and would make international support for a more comprehensive sanctions regime or, as a last resort, military action more likely.

Finally, this type of engagement would differ from appeasement in that it would be backed by a robust defense posture. The United States could reaffirm its defense commitments to its partners in the Middle East, consider deploying its THAAD missile defense system to the region, and highlight the likelihood of an Iranian nuclear breakout leading to a nuclear arms race in the region. Reaffirming U.S. commitment to the region while convincing Iran that its security relative to its neighbors would be diminished by pursing a nuclear weapon would allow the United States to demonstrate its strength without resorting to overt threats of military strikes that would only serve to solidify any Iranian rationale for developing a nuclear deterrent in the first place.

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