Foreign Policy Blogs

Iran: Cutting the Gordian Knots


The good news in nuclear arms control this last week was of course China’s rather surprising decision to join in international sanctions against North Korea. The single most important thing about sanctions, almost always, is not their material effect but, rather, when the sanctions are universal,  the moral and political impact on the target country of isolation and general disapprobation.

But sanctions can also have the perverse effect, especially short-term, of strengthening those one wishes to weaken and weakening those one wishes to strengthen. Furthermore, with the passage of time, it is easy to confuse the visible economic impacts of the sanctions with their intended effect on behavior. As positions harden and ossify, the sanctions can come to seem an objective in themselves and feed on themselves. Thus, they can become an impediment to resolution of the underlying political issue.

Just this is the danger looming with Iran sanctions, argues a recent report by the International Crisis Group in Brussels. “Sanctions are not necessarily counterproductive. But, too easily they become a path of least resistance, a tool whose effectiveness is assessed by the harm inflicted, not how much closer it brings the goal. In future cases, policymakers should make sure to constantly re-evaluate their effects.”

What stands out in the ICG report, “Spider Web: The Making and Unmaking of Iran Sanctions,” in addition to its persuasively argued central argument, is the long list and complexity of the sanctions that have been imposed on Iran. In a useful effort to determine how readily each kind of sanction could be lifted in the process of settling the Iranian nuclear crisis, the report distinguishes between eighteen categories of sanctions, and ranks each in terms of “ease of repealing” and “ease of suspending.” Thus, the sanctions themselves–though absolutely required by circumstances–have come to be a tangle that in itself is an obstacle to negotiating an agreement.

Add to that a second tangle in rat’s nest of issues that need to be resolved: What limits should be set to the level of uranium enrichment and how much enriched uranium may be stockpiled? What about the plutonium that eventually will be produced in the heavy water reactor that Iran has insisted on proceeding with? What abut warhead design and customization (the kind of work that Iran is believed to have been conducting pre-2003 (and which the IAEA believes it may still be conducting, at least in part)? What about long-range missile development? And what about all the larger contextual issues–Iran’s support for Hezbollah, the stability of Iraq, diplomatic recognition, the U.S.-Iran relationship in general?

The danger here is two-fold: either that negotiations will fail entirely, or that an agreement will disentangle only such a small part of the whole knot that it’s not worth the gram of digital ink it’s written in.

The only way of slicing through these two entangled knots, as I see it, is to focus clearly on a single strategic objective — and that objective can only be, in my opinion, full restoration to Iran all the duties and rights of Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty membership. To put that in the simplest possible terms, Iran must agree to the Additional Protocol and implement it, so that the IAEA can do whatever on-site inspections it deems necessary at any given time and be fully confident at all times that Iran is not covertly turning “peaceful” nuclear activity to military ends. In return, Iran will subject to the same rules and rights regarding uranium enrichment and plutonium production as any other NPT member in good standing. That is, it can enrich and produce without restriction so long as it properly reports all activities to the IAEA, so that all fissile material is tracked and timely warning of a diversion is guaranteed, as per the basic IAEA safeguards guidelines.

Hardliners will of course object that if Iran only is required to do what is necessary to recover its good standing in the NPT, it eventually will acquire what’s termed a “breeakout” capacity — the ability to abrogate the treaty and build nuclear weapons on short notice, having acquired as an NPT member all the technology needed to build a bomb. Regrettably that is correct. The NPT guarantees its members the right to acquire such technology, and had it not done so, major power like Japan and Germany would never have agreed to it. There is no reason to think an emergent power like Iran would think otherwise.

Let’s not forget how the Iran crisis began. It started with the discovery in 2003 of a unprecedented 20-year pattern of systematic NPT violations by Iran, strongly suggesting it had nuclear weapons in mind. What has been required is the restoration of confidence that Iran is now fully abiding by its NPT obligations and not actively developing nuclear weapons. There is some wiggle room here, to be sure. Iran might agree, by an old-fashioned “gentleman’s agreement” or the secret protocols so despised by Woodrow Wilson, to some restrictions on its uranium enrichment. But it is unrealistic and unreasonable to suppose that in any permanent resolution of this crisis, Iran will agree uniquely to restrictions that no other NPT member is required to accept.

As for countries not party to the NPT and not in good standing in the nuclear nonproliferation regime, their voices should not be factor in resolving the crisis.



William Sweet

Bill Sweet has been writing about nuclear arms control and peace politics since interning at the IAEA in Vienna during summer 1974, right after India's test of a "peaceful nuclear device." As an editor and writer for Congressional Quarterly, Physics Today and IEEE Spectrum magazine he wrote about the freeze and European peace movements, space weaponry and Star Wars, Iraq, North Korea and Iran. His work has appeared in magazines like the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and The New Republic, as well as in The New York Times, the LA Times, Newsday and the Baltimore Sun. The author of two books--The Nuclear Age: Energy, Proliferation and the Arms Race, and Kicking the Carbon Habit: The Case for Renewable and Nuclear Energy--he recently published "Situating Putin," a group of essays about contemporary Russia, as an e-book. He teaches European history as an adjunct at CUNY's Borough of Manhattan Community College.