The Sanctions Debate

  (Photo: valeriy osipov/flickr)

 (Photo: valeriy osipov/flickr)

Sanctions!

 Since the end of the government shutdown, the big discussion in Washington surrounds the issue of United States sanctions against Iran — specifically, whether another tougher round should be enacted while the P5+1 countries are in the midst of negotiations with the Islamic Republic over its nuclear program.

The White House favors delaying any additional punitive action while the talks in Geneva are in progress, while Senate Republicans (and some of their Democratic allies) want to increase the pressure, with the belief that it is precisely these types of punitive measures that are forcing Iran to come to the bargaining table. Meanwhile, the Iranians are asking for something even more drastic — sanctions relief! — using the argument that they have “earned” at least as much given their willingness to negotiate at all. And then there is Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, who wants the international community to sanction the Iran nuclear program to the point of extinction, at a pace and degree that exceeds even what Congress is considering. What to do?

An interesting proposal was put forth last week by Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (a conservative think tank based in Washington). The New York Times writes about it here, and Jeffrey Goldberg of Bloomberg offers an interesting assessment with even greater detail, but a simplified version goes something like this: Iran wants sanctions relief, the United States hesitates to provide it without a final agreement that permanently cripples the Islamic Republic's nuclear program (so that it can never be weaponized), but at the same time, the Obama administration cannot not respond to any positive Iranian overtures in that direction.

The solution? Release Iranian assets that are frozen in banks all over the world, which provides some needed economic relief and signals a degree of trust without undermining the credibility of the sanctions program as a deterrent. And meanwhile, negotiations will continue and be used to assess any further Iranian compliance, which would then presumably lead to another set of “relief measures” of this sort. Effectively, it gives both sides a little of what they want -- just enough to nudge the process forward. It will probably be sufficient to keep the negotiations going in Geneva, and perhaps beyond.

But whether this leads to a genuine breakthrough in the dialogue is, in my opinion, far less likely. The reason, as Dubowitz also recognizes: Iran wants both sanctions relief and  to preserve its "inalienable right" to enrich uranium. I will have to more say on this supposed "right" in a follow-up post, but for now, it's worth considering whether Iran's and the West's objectives are mutually exclusive, and what this may mean for the sanctions-diplomacy that is causing so much hand-wringing.