The Iranian Nuclear Program, Sanctions, and the Lessons of Iraq

Gary Sick writes:

How to Keep Iran in Check Without War – The Daily Beast

The real purpose of negotiations, in my view, is to build a system of monitoring and inspections that will (1) provide maximum early warning of a potential future Iranian decision to “break out;” and (2) insure the maximum possible interval between that moment and the moment where Iran could actually have a bomb. Iran has said on several occasions that it is willing to accept such an enhanced inspection regime, but it will no doubt insist on a price. That, I think, is what the negotiations should be about.

So, there are a few issues to consider here.

First, I am not sure why we need to conceive of the issue as finding the right “price” to pay Iran in this case.  Iran has obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and the international community has a right to expect/demand that Iran live up to its commitments.  And the international community does not need to pay again for compliance with international obligations, but can instead focus on imposing sanctions in response to violations.

Second, in addition to obligations, Iran also has rights — two of which are the right to the development of a peaceful nuclear energy program under the NPT and the right to be free from military threats under the U.N. Charter.  And being free from military threats also includes being free from Israeli threats to attack lawful nuclear programs in Iran, assuming the Iran nuclear program can be brought in line with IAEA norms.  What this means, in short, is that we need to think in terms of accepting Iranian rights — not grudging in response to a lack of alternatives, but openly as a matter of principle — as well as insisting on their obligations.

Third, I think this is my original (or at least under-explored) contribution to the discuss so far, we have largely failed to recalibrate our judgment about the utility of sanctions in light of the Iraq experience.  Recall, please, that in the case of Iraq we had a very problematic sanctions regime.  It was leaky at time, because of smuggling through Syria and Jordan.  It was corrupt at times, such as in the case of the “oil for food” program.  It was unverified after 1998 when the U.N. inspectors were kicked out.  But, the key lesson of the Iraq case is that sanctions WORKED.  They worked unambiguously.  George W. Bush didn’t disarm Iraq.  Bill Clinton did.  Now, yes, DESERT FOX played a role as well, so military force was a part of the package though it came late and probably just finished off a program that was teetering anyway.  And the inspections from 1991 to 1998 were more intrusive than anything the Iranians will accept.  And there are a myriad other differences, several of which including dynamics of democratization in Iran that work in our favor.  But the starting point in our discussions about Iran ought not be the silly “war or nukes” dichotomy that many propose.  The starting point of our discussions ought to be how to emulate — if possible — the successful sanctions regime that ended Iraqi nuclear weapon aspirations in the 1990s.

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