November 21, 2013

Will the US lose leverage if it makes a deal with Iran?

By Colin H. Kahl

Even if Iran and world powers manage to forge an interim agreement at nuclear negotiations in Geneva this week, they'll be left facing a deeper question: What happens afterward?

"So many people are focused on the deal, and whether we're going to get it or not, but very few people are thinking about what comes next," said Matt Kroenig, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. "You want to have some kind of deal in mind. You want to know what checkmate looks like before you move the first piece."

Iran and the P5+1 group — Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States and Germany — resumed discussions in Geneva on Wednesday, amid skepticism over whether either side is indeed serious about hammering out a deal involving curbs on Iran's nuclear work in exchange for relief from punishing sanctions. The Obama administration is facing complaints from Israel and Capitol Hill over the belief that Washington is offering Iran too much in return for too little. At the same time, other allies are pressing the U.S. to begin a diplomatic process to resolve the nuclear standoff, even if the starting point is an interim agreement that doesn't immediately address all concerns.

In a prospective deal designed to ease pressure and build confidence on both sides to engage in further talks over the next six months, Iran is being asked to suspend enrichment of uranium to 20 percent purity, as well as set limits on its enrichment capacity and suspend work on the Arak heavy-water reactor project. Iran would also be required to convert some or all of its stockpile into an oxide form more difficult to turn into weapons-grade, and to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency more far-reaching inspections.

In return, Iran will have some sanctions relief that, according to U.S. officials, will be applied as Tehran continues to comply with the deal. It will be able to purchase parts to upgrade its aging civilian airliner fleet, as well as to trade precious metals, petrochemicals and automobiles. It will also be able to collect more than $3 billion that had been frozen in foreign exchange accounts. Washington insists that though the easing of sanctions will provide an economic reprieve for Iran, it will not be enough to allow Tehran to markedly profit from the new deals.

But such efforts to assuage hawkish concerns are being met with skepticism. Since the first round of talks ended in early November, the various parties have argued their positions while criticizing opposing views. Israel, for example, opposes any deal short of full Iranian capitulation on uranium enrichment and continues — as it has done for many years, as part of its effort to press Western powers to impose sanctions on Iran — to threaten unilateral military action should it deem that necessary. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Russia on Wednesday to appeal to President Vladimir Putin for stronger terms on the deal. On Sunday, Netanyahu urged negotiators not to ease any kind of pressure on Iran, but rather to "increase the pressure, because it's finally working. If you give it up now, when you have that pressure, and Iran doesn't even take apart, dismantle one centrifuge, what leverage will you have when you've eased the pressure?" Moscow, on the other hand, is hopeful for a deal. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, according to Reuters, dismissed warnings about Iran's potential nuclear capability as "removed from reality."

French President Francois Hollande, who objected over the first round of talks that the agreement didn't go far enough to curb Iran's enrichment program, said in a press conference with Netanyahu that "talks are better than a military option," and that "the best will be to go straight to a final and comprehensive agreement." He vowed to continue French pressure on Iran.

Both the Russians and the Chinese have voiced optimism that there will be better success this time around. Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Li Baodong said, "Things are on track," while British Foreign Secretary William Hague told reporters the remaining gaps were narrow. "It is the best chance for a long time to make progress on one of the gravest problems in foreign policy," he told reporters while in Istanbul.

The White House has sought to assuage hard-line critics, insisting that any easing of sanctions would be "eminently reversible," according to White House press secretary Jay Carney.

At the same time, the White House is working to keep Congress from passing new restrictions that might thwart this latest round of talks. Legislators from both sides of the aisle have voiced their concerns about the deal. Some, like Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., have called for even tougher sanctions.

The perspective in Congress could cause a potential problem for President Barack Obama. Should there be a deal, he would have to work to lift existing sanctions alongside any new restrictions imposed by lawmakers.

In testimony to Congress last week, Colin Kahl, director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), called on lawmakers to "refrain from imposing additional sanctions or taking other actions that would tie the hands of U.S. diplomats and undermine the prospects for success."

On the other hand, partial easing of sanctions for Iran's trading partners may prompt Iran to decide down the road that there may not be further relief and no point in pursuing talks, argued Patrick Clawson, director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"The fear is that once any agreement has been done, no matter how much it is described as temporary, the rush would be on to lift sanctions," Clawson wrote. The U.S. has not traded with Iran in more than 30 years, but the most effective U.S. sanctions currently in place are those that penalize third countries for doing business with Tehran. Clawson's concern is that many of those countries might be less likely to heed U.S. restrictions in the event of even a limited deal.

U.S. sanctions against Iran for its human rights abuses and for sponsorship of groups including Hamas and Hezbollah would remain in place.

If an interim agreement is concluded, each side will have six months to observe, monitor and analyze the other's compliance. If Iran is deemed noncompliant, Congress "will be more than happy to go back to tougher sanctions," said the Atlantic Council's Kroenig.

According to Kahl of CNAS, sanctions leverage will still be there in the event of an interim agreement.

"Nothing about the temporary and reversible sanctions relief package currently under discussion fundamentally weakens oil and financial sanctions — the most crippling elements of current pressure on Iran — or dismantle the international architecture supporting these measures," Kahl noted in his testimony. "Consequently, even after the interim deal goes into effect, the United States and its P5+1 partners would still maintain significant leverage to incentivize the Iranian regime to agree to comprehensive constraints on its program during the next phase of negotiations."

  • Colin H. Kahl

    Middle East Security

    Dr. Colin H. Kahl is an associate professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and the former National Securi...