Foreign Policy Blogs

Candid Discussions: Mark Dubowitz on Iranian Nuclear Negotiations



Mark Dubowitz is executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan policy institute, where he leads projects on Iran, sanctions, nonproliferation, and countering electronic repression.

Mr. Dubowitz is an expert on sanctions and has testified before Congress and advised the U.S. administration, Congress, and numerous foreign governments on Iran sanctions. Author of many studies on economic sanctions against Iran and a regular contributor to leading American news media outlets; Mr. Dubowitz co-chairs the Project on U.S. Middle East Nonproliferation Strategy, a nonpartisan project that produced a 2013 report on U.S. Nonproliferation Strategy for the Changing Middle East.

He is also a lecturer and senior research fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, where he teaches and conducts research on international negotiations, sanctions, and Iran’s nuclear program. Mr. Dubowitz sat down with Reza Akhlaghi of the Foreign Policy Association to discuss the ongoing negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program and the U.S-led sanctions against Tehran.


On Sept. 4 in Geneva and this week in New York, Iran and the P5 + 1 met as part of renewed efforts to meet the Nov. 24 deadline for a final deal. What is your assessment of the current nuclear negotiations with Iran since July 20, 2014? Is there a chance for another extension of the talks, should the two sides fail to reach a comprehensive agreement by Nov. 24?

I think the position that we’re in right now is a disappointing one for many people involved. There was great enthusiasm after the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) was agreed to in Geneva in November 2013 though some of us were very skeptical with both the substance of the JPOA and the decision to de-escalate the sanctions pressure on Iran. The JPOA gave away too much at the outset, particularly on issues relating to enrichment, centrifuge R&D, and the sunset provision and the implicit acknowledgment that Iran’s long-range ballistic missile program was now off the table; these were critical concessions that should have been saved for the negotiation on the final agreement. Now there’s real disappointment that the Iranian regime seems unwilling to compromise on certain fundamental elements of Iran’s nuclear program and continues to stall the IAEA’s investigation into regime’s weaponization activities. This should not have come as a surprise given that the economic leverage on Iran diminished and that Western response to Iranian nuclear concessions has been to erode our negotiating positions on key elements of the Iranian nuclear program and on sanctions. What we’re seeing now is a nuclear negotiating team that is either directly or through its surrogates offering compromise positions in the hope that, by accommodating the Supreme Leader’s redlines, they can find some technical solution. This only rewards the Leader’s intransigence and makes it increasingly likely that, if there is a comprehensive deal, it will be a bad deal.

I think it’s very likely that if they don’t reach a comprehensive agreement, we will see a further extension into 2015 where the interim agreement increasingly becomes the final agreement. At this point, it is difficult to know which would be worse: A bad final deal or a flawed interim deal that gets perpetually extended while Iran systematically wears down the international sanctions regime, builds economic resilience and moves forward on the key elements of its military-nuclear program that it hasn’t perfected.

So you still see room for negotiation beyond Nov. 24 without the situation becoming critical and more contentious?

I think there will certainly be tension, and there will be pressure on both sides not to extend for further four to six months. I think the political reality is that, in order to justify another extension, the Obama administration has to show some measure of progress on some key elements of Iran’s nuclear program. It’s entirely possible that there could be a partial agreement whereby they reach a deal, for example, on the Arak heavy water reactor and then conclude a JPOA “plus” with additional nuclear restrictions in exchange for further sanctions relief.

The Obama administration might then say to Congress that this demonstrates an important compromise that constrains Iran’s plutonium pathway to a bomb and use this to justify an extension to negotiate enrichment capacity, the sunset provision, and any other issues that have been bedeviling the negotiators. They will face the criticism that the Iranian regime is using “salami-style” tactics to further erode Western negotiating leverage but the question will be whether the “Arak compromise” is restrictive enough, and the plutonium pathway is sufficiently cut-off, to send a message that the Obama administration is committed to deep, meaningful restrictions.

If, on the other hand, the compromise is merely a technical fix that is reversible and allows Iran to re-engineer Arak, at a time of its choosing, in order to turn it into a plutonium bomb-making factory, then that will be a warning that the administration is being played. It will also matter greatly what Iran receives in return on the sanctions relief side and to what extent this relief will continue to fuel Iran’s economic recovery and strengthen its economic resilience to further sanctions if those become necessary.

What would the U.S. Congress seek to achieve before a move toward easing of sanctions against Iran? In what areas does President Obama have leeway in removing the sanctions without the need to go to the Congress?

I think that at the end of November if there is no final comprehensive deal, Congress will be faced with a decision: Can there ever be a final comprehensive deal without enhancing the pressure on Iran? So there’s going to be a determination made after Nov. 24, particularly by the senior members of the Congress on both sides of the aisle, on the question of whether there’s enough to extend the parameters of the negotiations, or whether Iran is using “salami-style” tactics to erode Western leverage. If the latter, Congress may decide to move the sanctions bill to escalate the pressure on the regime based on a view shared by many members of Congress that the U.S. lost negotiating leverage last year when the sanctions pressure was de-escalated, and that Western negotiation positions have so eroded, that it is becoming impossible to reach a serious deal.

Now if there is a final deal, Congress’ assessment will be based partly on parameters that have been laid out by Congress in bipartisan legislation, the Menendez-Kirk bill or s.1881, which has 60 co-sponsors as well as the actual details of the agreement. Congress will assess whether the administration has actually dismantled key elements of Iran’s military-nuclear program or merely provided technical, reversible fixes that depend only on monitoring to deter Iranian cheating; they will ask if the deal has sufficient verification and inspection restrictions that permit the IAEA to “go-anywhere, anytime,” especially to IRGC military bases or does it merely offer enhanced monitoring that still leaves key areas of Iran’s nuclear program in the dark; and they will want to play a major role ensuring that there is a realistic sanctions-relief plan that allows the West to retain sufficient economic leverage to force the Iranian regime back into compliance when it is found to be cheating on its commitments.

If Congress is sufficiently convinced of all of this, it may be willing to work with President Obama on a package of smart sanctions relief. However, if the deal does not meet the parameters and the president moves ahead with it, then it gets to the question of whether the president would use executive authority to provide sanctions relief in defiance of Congress. The president can do a fair amount in the short-term using his waiver authority. He can suspend many of the sanctions, but the suspension of those sanctions could be reversed by another president or another Congress. The next president or a Congress willing to override the president could decide to reverse the suspension and re-impose the sanctions.

The problem for this administration is that there are few pure nuclear-related sanctions. Many of these sanctions are hybrid sanctions, which are based on illicit Iranian regime behavior involving terrorism, support for the Assad regime, and money laundering. Many of these sanctions are congressionally-mandated and can’t be lifted without congressional consent. Unfortunately, few meaningful sanctions are based on the regime’s human rights abuses — the Obama administration refused Congressional attempts to link tough sanctions to its human rights behavior — so the West has little leverage to protect Iran’s people from regime repression.

It will be very difficult for President Obama or any other president to offer medium- to long-term, irreversible sanctions relief to Iran without Congress playing a meaningful role in that process.

A look at Iranian domestic politics. Do you think the recent intensification of inter-factional rivalries in Iran and the subsequent growing pressure on President Rouhani’s administration are related to the dynamics of late-stage nuclear negotiations?

The answer is Yes and No. To a certain extent, there is disagreement in the regime right now over tactics. I think, between Rouhani, Zarif, and Rafsanjani on one hand, and the Revolutionary Guards and the clerical establishment on the other, there are clear differences over tactics with respect to negotiations. I don’t think there are fundamental differences with respect to objectives. Everyone who matters in the Iranian elite has, as their end-goal, the achievement of nuclear weapons capacity, if not a nuclear weapon. Rouhani and Zarif ultimately see diplomacy as the best way to achieve nuclear weapons capacity, if not a weapon, while the Guards believe that a policy of escalation will get them more quickly and assume that they can withstand any further sanctions given their “Plan B” which involves using Russia, China, and other Asian countries as an escape hatch from Western sanctions.

For Rouhani and Zarif, diplomacy has always been an instrument to achieve that objective, whereas the Revolutionary Guards and the clerical establishment disagree: they believe that diplomacy and negotiations are not only ultimately a waste of time but also weaken the Iranian position. This latter group takes a view that was best expressed by the previous administration under President Ahmadinejad and his nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, who were of the view that the escalation of nuclear physics was the better course over diplomacy, which, in their view, would be detrimental to the Iranian negotiating leverage. So we see fundamental disagreement over tactics, but fundamental agreement over objectives. I think what we’re seeing now is linked to that disagreement over tactics, as you said, at the late-stage nuclear negotiations. But certainly this is a regime that has many differences of opinion over lots of issues but is ultimately unified over a common objective: Iran’s nuclear weapon capacity.

It’s hard to read the Supreme Leader, but I think he listens to arguments from both sides and has given the Rouhani camp the opportunity to try diplomacy as a pathway to a bomb, but if the Supreme Leader sees that diplomacy is undercutting that objective, and that concessions demanded of him will cut off his pathways to a nuclear weapon, he will call it off. He may like a perpetual renewal of the interim agreement that allows Iran to move forward on those key elements of its nuclear weapons program that it hasn’t perfected yet while wearing away the sanctions regime and building up Iran’s economic resilience. He actually may prefer that to a comprehensive agreement that cuts off his pathway to a bomb and also brings in Western investment, trade liberalization, and, what he sees as the toxic touch of the West. He may also prefer to walk away from the table and dare the Obama administration to escalate, calculating that the administration doesn’t have the backbone for real coercive action.

Should a permanent agreement be sealed by Nov. 24, what are your expectations about where Fordow and Arak facilities would fit in the deal?

My expectations are that neither facility will be dismantled; neither facility will be closed. There could be some technical modifications to both facilities that would limit Iran’s short-term ability to use them to achieve a nuclear weapon. The technical modifications would be sufficiently reversible that at any time, particularly once the comprehensive deal sunsets and, the enhanced constraints imposed on the program (beyond those imposed on other civilian nuclear programs) would go away, both facilities would be available to run as part of a military-nuclear program.

It is entirely conceivable that Iran could replace the core of the Arak reactor with a smaller one, limiting the plutonium reprocessing and pushing back the breakout time by a year or two. Again this is a technical modification that is ultimately reversible, so this constraint could stay in place during the duration of the deal, but then Iran would be entitled and able to re-engineer the Arak to start reprocessing sufficient plutonium for a nuclear device at a rapid pace. Additionally, after the deal sunsets, Iran could build 10 or 20 Arak-style nuclear reactors.

As for Fordow, I don’t expect it to be dismantled or shut down. I think it’s more likely to be converted into an advanced-centrifuge R&D facility under international monitoring. This would provide some constraints on the program, but these constraints will go away after the deal expires, after the sunset period. All the while, Iran would have the ability to work on advanced centrifuges, which are obviously critical to achieve its objective of reaching an industrial-size nuclear program and its ability to build a clandestine enrichment facility that would rely on far fewer more powerful centrifuges, and therefore be smaller and harder to detect.

I hope I am wrong and that the P5+1 remains committed to closing down these facilities, but I fear that we may have already accepted the Supreme Leader’s redlines, and now are trying our best to accommodate them with technical fixes that the administration can sell as meaningful. That’s why it really helps to have redlines and stick to them.

The Obama Administration is concerned that Iran’s recent trade agreements with Russia and China have weakened the economic impact of the international and American-led sanctions against Iran, which could result in empowering hard-liners who oppose a deal with the West. What are your thoughts on Iranian hardliners who are opposed to a deal with the West/United States and a subsequent opening of the Iranian economy?

First of all, I’m not sure if the Obama administration is sufficiently concerned about the deals that Iran is signing or thinking of signing with Russia and China. I think they should be more concerned that these reports of Russian-Iranian deals, even if they haven’t yet been consummated, or increased Chinese crude oil and condensates imports from Iran, are a sign that Khamenei has a Plan B and that Russia and China figure largely into that. This is why it was a mistake to de-escalate the sanctions pressure last year; it changes market psychology from fear to greed and sends a message that the United States and Europe are no longer deeply committed to real economic coercion.

Khamenei’s has a Plan B; indeed it may be his Plan A. When Khamenei talks about a resistance economy, he’s not talking about what former Pakistani President Zia-ul-Haq used to talk about with respect to his nuclear program. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who said “my people eat grass” for us to have nuclear weapons. But while Khamenei talks about enduring certain hardships, he has an exit strategy from Western sanctions through Russia, China, and other strong authoritarian states. As I said, Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards see Western businesses as potentially threatening not only to their economic interests, but also they fear the “toxic” touch of the West. They’d rather not have thousands of European and American business people running through streets of Iran, cutting deals with their people and “intoxicating” the country with Western ideas and technology. So it is important for them to have Russia, China, and other authoritarian countries that have no cultural magnetic attraction for the Iranian people.

If anything, the Revolutionary Guards want to protect their status, their no-bid contracts and monopoly positions from competition from Western businesses. They’ve personally and institutionally benefitted over the past number of years as sanctions have been imposed even though there was a time in 2012-2013 where they saw sanctions as a threat to the survival of their regime. The Guards have benefitted through their control of the Iranian economy, which they don’t want to see threatened. Enhanced sanctions may help them in the short-term promote their economic interests, but the sanctions may threaten the regime’s stability in the medium- to long-term.

So what Khamenei and the Guards want ideally is a situation in which the economy is not imploding to the point of threatening the regime, but it is not booming either, because a booming economy creates a strong Iranian middle class that would demand not only bread but also socio-political rights. So there comes the Russia-China option. So I think that is Khamenei’s Plan A or B, and it is the fundamental reason why without an escalation of pressure, the U.S. will never break the nuclear will of Ayatollah Khamenei. On the economic side, Khamenei thinks he can break the sanctions, if not legally, then in practice he thinks he can weaken the sanctions through a Russia-China option.

I don’t think the administration is adequately taking it into account the possibility that this is Khamenei’s goal. And that is why the decision to de-escalate the sanctions last year and diminish the pressure on Khamenei and the Guards is feeding the Iranian nuclear intransigence. As sanctions de-escalate, Khamenei can have his nuclear option and maintain an economy that is stabilized and resilient. If sanctions pressure were at its peak, Khamenei might have to choose between the two.

Given the efforts of the Rouhani administration to improve relations with the West and the United States in particular, could improved relations with the West impact Russia’s strategic interests in Iran?

Regardless of what happens on the nuclear track and the sanctions relief, I think Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards are going to maintain and strengthen their other option, which recognizes the dangers of getting too close to the West economically, politically, and culturally.

So they see Russia, China, and the rest of Asia as an option that gives them leverage against Western sanctions and the possibility of those sanctions being re-imposed, if at any point the West decides that Iran is not complying with its nuclear commitments. So for that reason I think Russia and China will maintain very strong interests in Iran. And I think the regime and the Guards will do anything they can to cultivate that relationship because it provides a point of leverage not only against the West but also against the Rouhani-Zarif-Rafsanjani camp, because the last thing the hardliners want to see is an Iran booming economically and liberalizing, with a strong middle class and strong relationships with Western countries. The hardliners are absolutely committed to the revolution and their economic interests and, ultimately, to having a nuclear weapon.

Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, in response to Iran’s absence in the international conference in Paris held to coordinate efforts against the Islamic State, claimed that prior to the Paris Conference high ranking Iranian officials such as Javad Zarif and Abbas Araghchi were approached by the U.S. to cooperate over the fight against the Islamic States, but the Americans were rebuffed. What are your thoughts on Khamenei’s reaction to Iran’s absence in Paris?

This certainly doesn’t surprise me. I believe that the administration and Secretary Kerry have, indeed, reached out to Zarif and Araghchi and others with these openings. I think it’s entirely consistent with the administration’s approach, which has been forward leaning in trying to engage Iran and to seek areas of cooperation with Iran. What is preventing Iran joining this anti-Islamic State coalition is the Supreme Leader and his contempt for America, on the one hand, and the concern that Sunni countries, so critical to the fight against the Islamic State, may rebel if they believe Washington and Tehran are closely cooperating.

In the fight against the Islamic State, what do you think the emerging anti-IS coalition would look like? What factors could play a role in hampering the coalition’s success?

I think the greatest danger is to assume that the arsonist can be the firefighter. With regard to the Islamic State, there’s been a lot of blame to go around, but Iran and President Assad together and separately have done more than anyone else to fan the flames of sectarian warfare in the Middle East. Iran supported Maliki in Iraq and his disastrously sectarian Shia government that marginalized and brutalized Iraq’s Sunnis and created conditions for the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq. In Syria, Iran’s support for Assad and his brutal crackdown on the Syrian opposition fanned the flames of sectarian warfare in that country. Iran and Assad created, very deliberately, the conditions for a vicious sectarian war between the Shias and the Sunnis in Iraq and Syria, which in no small part contributed to the rise of the Islamic State.

Now imagine bringing Iran and Assad into a coalition and trying to put out this fire that they set. I think it’ll further fan the flame of sectarian hatred. For one thing, as I mentioned, it will undercut the efforts by the United States to enlist the support of its Sunni allies against the Islamic State. So that would be a big mistake by the U.S. administration, which continues to flirt with this option, and send mixed messages which is only emboldening Khamenei and Assad and further diminishing whatever trust remains between Washington and its Sunni allies.