Thursday, July 16, 2015

OK, We Have a Deal - Now What Happens?

You tried, I'll give you that. But maybe you
tried too hard
The reason that the international diplomatic community favors the use of economic sanctions as a tool to change the behavior of a national leadership is that sanctions are unique - they are a 'stick' with a built-in 'carrot'. The end goal is not to impose sanctions - it is to achieve specific, verifiable goals and then lift the sanctions. A sanctions regime that can never be lifted is useless - why would a government bother to alter their behavior if the sanctions would remain in place anyway?

Which brings us to the agreement the US, Europe, Russia and China reached with Iran this week restricting their civilian nuclear program and fuel cycle work. From any reasonable viewpoint, the sanctions 'worked'. Iran came to the table, and ultimately accepted the most onerous, intrusive inspection regime in the history of the NPT and simultaneously agreed to stringent limitations on centrifuge development, reactor design, fuel cycle R&D and amounts of LEU they are permitted to stockpile. You have to understand that these things have NEVER been controversial before - they were part of the 'peaceful use' of nuclear technology that the NPT actually encouraged. (The lesson here is that, if the international community is going to use the NPT as a weapon, it might be better in some cases for a signatory to abrogate it.)

But I'm not actually optimistic. Why? Because, under pressure from wingnuts, Israel and France, we actually drove TOO hard a bargain. Under the agreed upon terms, Iran will have to begin complying immediately - reducing stockpiled LEU, shuttering facilities, mothballing centrifuges, taking an entire reactor offline - and yet they won't see any meaningful sanctions relief for almost a year, and other sanctions (the arms embargo) will stay in place for five years. If Ayatollah Khamenei can hold it together while the IRGC hardliners are screaming, Iranian sovereign pride is in tatters and he has exactly nothing to show for it, month after month after month, great. But I don't think he can. I think what could have been a reasonable agreement that let each side get a win is inherently unsustainable, booby trapped from within, and it's very hard to see how this is going to work over the next 12 months.

As always, the net result of 'American Exceptionalism' is overreach, and we might very well see another example of everything we tried to do ended up making things orders of magnitude worse. If the IRGC stages a military coup to depose the supreme leader and impose a military government with far less concern about economic deprivation (think North Korea with big oil reserves) the middle east is going to be a much uglier, more violent and more unstable place.

I used to have a little lapel button that said: "Congratulations - you have somehow managed to turn a routine transaction into a bizarre ritual". And that's where I think we find ourselves with Iran.


  1. As always, the net result of 'American Exceptionalism' is overreach,

    You're sounding like me, mikey.

  2. We basically agree, Thunder. You just naively keep thinking there's something you can do to change it, while simultaneously failing to recognize the fundamental difference between a routinely corrupt political party and something much more extreme and dangerous.

    If you thought European fascists were bad, think about American fascists with control over the levers...