Now that the debate over the Iran Nuclear Agreement has cooled off after Congress’ failure to build the two-thirds opposition needed to defeat it, the White House must figure out how to enforce it.
Under the agreement, the only way world powers can punish Iran for non-compliance is by implementing “snapback” sanctions, which re-impose sanctions while simultaneously relieving Iran from its obligations under the deal. Therefore, if Iran violates the deal, world powers will need to decide between excusing Iran from the particular breach or punishing it with sanctions and nullifying the deal.
The agreement allows Iran to commit violations with a low probability of being punished, since the consequences of punishment are so extreme. Under the deal, sanctions could be officially lifted in as little as about six months, so the United States needs to figure out the level of violations it will tolerate.
While the notion of having to accept a certain level of violations seems ironic, once sanctions are lifted, it would actually be beneficial to do this in many circumstances. If Iran violates the deal after sanctions are lifted and world powers punish it with “snapback” sanctions, Iran would continue its pursuit of nuclear weapons, but by then, it will be able to do so with the billions of dollars that will have flowed in from the removal of initial sanctions. It will therefore be worth permitting some violations, provided they do not directly allow Iran to create a bomb.
It is certainly not comforting that Iran has already violated the deal by sending a sanctioned general to Russia, especially since the deal has not formally begun. Iran has proven that it does not take the U.S. and other negotiating powers seriously, and this is before it has any significant leverage. We can only expect more intense breaches once sanctions are removed and the power switches to Iran’s favor. Other than verbally saying that it is not acceptable, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power and other leaders have done little to demonstrate that Iran’s actions will be taken seriously.
How can we show our seriousness without ending a deal mid-way and putting ourselves in a worse situation? If more violations of the nuclear deal are made prior to sanctions removal, the U.S. could back out of the deal, which is highly improbable.
The deal will go on and other methods will be needed. Many opponents have been trying to pass additional sanctions targeting Iran’s human rights abuse and terror sponsorship. This is one way to keep Iran’s feet to the fire. According to head of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies Mark Dubowitz these bills also send a message of uncertainty to investors, dissuading them from pouring capital into Iran.
While continuing to apply pressure wherever possible, the U.S. should also define vague variables of the deal so it has a clearer outlook on when it will seek to punish Iran. For starters, it should define what it means by the phrase “significant non-performance,” which is used several times in the agreement. When the time comes, it may be very difficult to determine whether or not a violation is “significant” so we need to clarify the definition now when we have a calm environment for discussion.
Of course, it is impossible to define in advance every possible circumstance that would constitute a “significant” event, particularly with such a complex and detailed agreement. The U.S. could, however, significantly narrow the universe of ambiguities to ensure that the terms of the deal will be taken seriously. The U.S. needs to continue to apply pressure to show that violations are unacceptable. We can maintain strength with clarity, consistency and pressure; we cannot if we are lenient and offer empty threats.