Are Sanctions Contributing to or Impeding a Diplomatic Solution to the Iranian Nuclear Puzzle?

Image Source: Wall Street Journal

By Alfred Nurja

Hossein Mousavian,  Iran’s former Ambassador to Germany, nuclear negotiator and current Princeton visiting research scholar, has just released an article on Iran’s Nuclear Crises and the Way Out, an edited version of which appears here. As noted elsewhere, the Mousavian’s articles bear watching not only for their material substance, coming from a former senior Iranian official intimately involved in nuclear negotiations, but also for the “insights into Tehran’s decision making” that can be gleaned from it.

Here are some of the points that Mousavian makes that bear further examination:

  1. Despite western focus on the policies of President Ahmedinejad, Mousavian reaffirms that when it comes to the Iranian nuclear program “the religious leader Ayatollah Khamenei is the ultimate decision-maker” and the one that sets the direction of Iran’s nuclear policies.
  2. The differences between the political factions in Iran being real, “the right to peaceful nuclear technology, including uranium enrichment,” is a red-line that no Iranian government dares cross. Hence, the demands posed by the UN Security Council resolutions are a “major obstacle to any face-saving solution.”
  3. The diplomatic effort launched by the Obama administration and its Western allies have failed “largely due to the lack of a comprehensive framework that considers the concerns of both sides.”

Let’s start with the last point. There is indeed a plausible case to be made that the U.S. administration’s policy of engaging with Iran could have benefited from a more balanced approach between incentives and sanctions. For a number of reasons including domestic pressures, the public diplomacy dimension of this policy in particular has often placed overt emphasis on the cost of Iranian defiance rather than the rewards of engagement. A discussion hosted by ACA in January clearly drove home the point that the chances of a successful engagement track could be increased by a rebalanced U.S. strategy which “put greater emphasis on inducements and incentives.” To avoid [what Mousavian calls] “putting all the eggs of engagement in the basket of the nuclear issue” such an approach should also include serious consideration of “opening a second track to U.S. Iranian contacts to discuss cooperation on common concerns such as narcotics, terrorism, etc.”

To this end, Secretary Clinton statement to the BBC that “Iran can enrich uranium at some future date” provided international concerns are effectively addressed, bears repeating more often as the type of end-game scenario that is on the table. To be effectively pursued, however, such policy calibrations require reciprocating moves by the Iranian side unlike the ones demonstrated during the last round of talks in Istanbul.

Contrary to what’s implied in the Mousavian’s article, the UN Security Council resolutions are not what’s depriving Iran of its rights to enrichment under the NPT. As ACA’s Greg Thielmann pointed out at an ACA Iran panel in January, “the U.N. resolutions calls for suspension, not abandonment, of enrichment.” They extend UN Security Council endorsement to a 2008 P5+1 offer that pledges to treat Iran’s nuclear program “in the same manner as that of any other state” once Iran takes steps to restore international confidence. Bringing together an ad-hoc legal mechanism made up of a panel of independent jurists, as the Ambassador suggests, to consider the alleged ultra-vires nature of UNSC resolutions is no solution. While the subject remains a hot topic of research in academic circles, international practice to date has established no judicial review powers over UNSC resolutions. Even the ICJ, the body that could come closest to making a claim to such power, has so far stayed well clear of the subject. Rather, the answer to Iran’s concerns is to be found in the ample room for negotiating adjustments to international measures that the text of the UN resolutions allow for. Iran must be willing to undertake steps to address the IAEA’s need for information to do its job for this process to start however.

Ultimately, as Ambassador Mousavian rightly concludes, engagement is the viable path to resolving the Iranian nuclear issues. Indeed, alternative paths such as military actions and sabotage, as the Ambassador stresses, could generate disastrous consequences and risk compounding the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program. To this end, however, contrary to the Ambassador’s assertion, there is a role for an effective and legitimate international sanctions regime. While there are limitations to what a sanctions regime can achieve, (a subject that will be explored by a panel of ACA-assembled panel of experts tomorrow), sanctions are an important tool, alongside the full range of other measures described above.  Sanctions can present the Iranian regime with a clear picture of the cost that the inadequately monitored nuclear program is imposing and the alternative benefits that lie in the path of engagement. The choice may indeed ultimately rest with the Supreme Leader, but so may responsibility for the cost.


This entry was posted in Iran, Middle East, Nuclear Weapons, Regions. Bookmark the permalink.