U.S. President Barack Obama and other administration officials touting the qualities of the interim nuclear accord with Iran regularly cite “snap-back” provisions as a fail-safe within the agreement. The idea is that, if Iran violates the terms of the deal, sanctions that otherwise would be lifted as a reward for entering into the arrangement would immediately be reimposed.
It is an appealing idea. What’s more, it is a necessary one if anyone anywhere is to believe that the deal is truly enforceable. However, as former U.S. secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz pointed out in their recent thoughtful, constructive critique of the interim agreement that appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the notion that somehow a button can be pushed and the entire panoply of multilateral and bilateral sanctions that have been put in place over the past dozen or so years to put pressure on Iran would suddenly be back in force strains credulity.
Indeed, the Iran sanctions regime is so complex and hard-won that it would likely become the Humpty Dumpty of foreign-policy mechanisms — nearly impossible to put back together again once shattered. That is because for most sanctions to work in today’s global economy, they require that all or most of the world’s big economies enforce and abide by them. It took a lot of hard work to get our European allies (many of which are home to companies eager to do business with Iran), as well as the Russians and the Chinese (who are historically less inclined to impose their values on trading partners than we are), to go along with the sanctions regime now in place. That is why in many scenarios for violating the nuclear agreement except the most extreme, it would likely be difficult to generate the political will in all of these countries to revert. Even if the terms in a final agreement were absolutely clear regarding what would trigger such provisions, absent a treaty arrangement that would require a ratification process that the Obama administration would surely be disinclined to go through, making the snap-back legally binding among all participants would be difficult. Further, getting all participants to agree that a violation warranting such action had in fact taken place might also be difficult. And it would certainly involve a lengthy process, one that would take the “snap” right out of the snap-back required — except in the case of the most egregious flaunting of the terms of the nuclear deal. And as Kissinger and Shultz point out, many of the violations most likely to occur in a case like this may be hard to detect and incremental — and thus unlikely to trigger swift, unanimous international action in response.
In addition, with each day that passes after the sanctions are lifted, economic ties will be established that will link Iran back into the community of nations. These ties will not only lift Iran up, but they will also create a community of companies and nations that have an ever-stronger interest in maintaining open commerce with Iran. Important companies with lots of political influence will have a stake in trade with Iran or will have investments in or from that country. One set of partners to this deal, those in Europe, have proved themselves rather slow to act even in cases that shout out for swift, meaningful sanctions to be imposed, as was illustrated by the recent confrontation with Russia. (If you can’t hop into strong action immediately following the outright invasion of one country by another, which is about as baldfaced a violation of international norms as is imaginable, then action seems a far less likely consequence in the face of a series of highly technical assertions regarding the progress of nuclear research or development.) Other countries, like Russia, China, and India, have geopolitical interests that are often at odds with the United States, and they might well see slow-walking a reaction to any violations to be in their interests — a way to gain influence with an increasingly strategically important Iran (one whose own power and potential value as an ally is likely to grow with every day that passes after the lifting of sanctions). You need look no further than the acceptance of Iran as a founding member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) this week than to see evidence of the desire to embrace that country by China, the architect of the AIIB, and a willingness to go along with it by member states like our European allies.
China, which is growing increasingly dependent on access to Middle Eastern oil and seeks strong partnerships in that region, already has close ties with Iran, and this deal is almost certain to result in an even closer relationship between the two countries. With each year of the deal, the potential cost to China of reimposing sanctions, should they be called for should an agreement be finalized later this year, is certain to rise, and the benefits of resisting the reimposition of such sanctions are also likely to grow commensurately.
All this does not mean, however, that the proposed nuclear deal should not be undertaken. Instead, it suggests that much greater clarity and specificity around this issue is required. And negotiators should realize that our leverage over Iran will decline precipitously should sanctions be relieved. So setting or abiding by artificial deadlines should be avoided. Getting this right is key.
Further, for any deal to be truly effective, it will require that successors to the Obama administration in Washington be resolute enough to impose the most potent unilateral sanctions America can muster on an errant Iran — financial sanctions that will make it very difficult for Iran to operate in the international system thanks to the importance of the American dollar and the banking system in international trade. It will also require that the next administration be willing to use all the pressure it could bring to bear on our allies to counter their general foreign-policy inertia. In other words, it will require leadership so strong that it would be willing to do whatever was necessary to impose real pressure on Iran — including, if required, the credible use of military force.
We can debate whether the Obama administration meets these criteria. Certainly, during the first term, when the administration was home to advocates of a much tougher and more skeptical Iran policy, like Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, Leon Panetta, and others, it embraced the idea of tougher sanctions that were initially pushed upon it by Congress. Some of its best diplomatic work was done at that time, ensuring those sanctions would be effective and respected internationally. On the other hand, reports from some of America’s partners in the nuclear negotiating process have suggested that the current Obama team repeatedly showed itself to be too eager for a deal with the Iranians, capitulating on issues where our allies felt we could have gotten better terms absent artificial deadlines and too great an impulse on the part of senior Americans to smooth over differences. These actions make many with whom I have spoken in Washington during the past week wonder whether, in turn, the Obama team will repeat these errors during the even more important implementation phase of this deal as part of its desire to preserve the deal as a “legacy” achievement.
With Obama’s term of office lasting no more than about a year and a half following the proposed finalization of the terms of the Iran nuclear accord in late June, the burden of ensuring the American will to translate this accord into a genuine end to Iran’s efforts to build an atomic bomb will, however, fall not on him but on his successor. Indeed, the responsibility to ensure that America’s broader national interests are served by the successful containment of Iran’s regional ambitions and the reversal also of its history of state-sponsorship of terrorism — vital contextual factors that unaddressed could also moot the value of this deal — will also fall on Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, or whoever is the next president.
Clinton has already established her bona fides in this regard. During the 2008 presidential campaign, she was a critic of Obama’s softer stance on Iran and the naiveté of his assertion that engagement and good intentions alone would somehow unleash Iran’s inner good-guy nature. As Obama’s first secretary of state, she was, behind closed doors, consistently tough on the issue of implementing sanctions and relentless on using diplomacy to keep pressure up on that country. She has spoken forcefully in the past on the importance of ensuring our allies in the region know we will stand with them to thwart any Iranian use of nuclear weapons, and therefore it seems reasonable to believe she will take a tougher stand on Iran, closer to the norms of American policy toward that country for the past three and a half decades.
Similarly, it is hard to imagine that any of the Republican candidates for president, with the exception of Rand Paul — who represents the Barack Obama wing of the Republican Party, disinclined to engage in those world affairs we can find an excuse to avoid — would take a stance much different from that we could expect of Clinton. In fact, Iran’s leadership and that of our allies in the Middle East must know that, quite apart from whatever Iran does or does not do with regard to the nuclear deal, a snap-back in America’s Iran policies to a pre-Obama toughness, without some of the first-term, post-9/11 Bush excesses, seems highly likely.
Paradoxically, this could make the deal on the table now more palatable to many of its critics. Indeed, perhaps a deal negotiated by a seeming Iran-optimist like Obama but enforced by the tough-minded realists to come might not be such a bad outcome. (Although it must be repeated, for those who expect to see the Humpty Dumpty of international sanctions put back together again — it’s time for both a bracing dose of clear-eyed analysis and a concomitant effort to ensure that the final Iran deal terms are as explicit and binding as possible as to just what a “snap-back” might mean.)
In short, efforts to ascribe credit or blame for the current state of affairs with Iran aside, it is important that all involved recognize that the responsibility for these issues does not permanently reside with the current U.S. president and his team. In all likelihood, a broader snap-back to more traditional approaches to U.S. leadership will occur with the election of the next president. This is a fact, of course, not lost on many of the residents of the region who feel whipsawed and confused by recent U.S. actions and inaction. Which is why, perhaps, during a recent conversation with a minister from a close American ally in the Middle East, when I noted he had to wait only a couple of years until there would be a different American president, he responded, “No, 21 months, two weeks, and three days.”