Last week’s interim agreement with the Islamic Republic of Iran over its nuclear weapons program offers the regime sanctions relief even as U.S. lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats, are demanding more and stricter sanctions. The White House counters that more sanctions will only narrow diplomatic channels, drive the Iranians away from the negotiating table, and lead to war. Critics of the deal argue that by providing sanctions relief Obama is simply feeding an Iranian beast hungry for more concessions.
Sanctions relief, as critics argue, is indeed likely irreversible, and Congress should certainly not let up in its push for more sanctions. However, the danger is that the fight over sanctions will continue to distract, as it already has, from the much more important battle to prevent the Islamic Republic from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Therefore, it would be useful to consider how the sanctions issue has been understood and used and to imagine how the regime in Tehran sees it.
The common wisdom, held by both the administration and opponents of the interim deal, is that sanctions forced the Iranians to the negotiating table. Why, reason critics, should we offer relief when pressure is what made the Iranians buckle in the first place? And yet the notion that sanctions did the trick is partly a function of mirror-imaging—the assumption that Iranian officials respond as American policymakers would to the same set of circumstances—and partly what the revolutionary regime calls istikbar, arrogance.
First of all, it’s not clear how much sanctions really shaped the regime’s decision-making. A recent three-part report from Reuters showed that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei heads a business empire worth at least $95 billion, a sum exceeding the value of Iran’s annual petroleum exports. This enormous cushion means the regime is able to absorb quite a bit of economic pain without flinching. Sanctions may have hurt ordinary Iranians by sending the economy into a nosedive, but it’s unclear why this would matter to a ruling clique that manages domestic unrest by shooting its own citizens in the streets.
But perhaps the key issue arguing against the notion that sanctions forced the Iranians to the table is this: No competent negotiator enters talks confessing weakness and petitioning for mercy. And yet this is the scenario the sanctions narrative puts forth—that the opening gambit of a people famous for their bargaining skills was to come to the Obama administration on bended knee.
In reality, it was the White House negotiating team that lost its way in the bazaar. The deal itself, in which the administration ignored six U.N. Security Council resolutions and implicitly acknowledged Iran’s right to enrich uranium, is merely a flourish punctuating a prolonged period of self-abasement. From the Iranians’ perspective, it must have seemed as if the White House was weak and desperate for a deal.
The administration, as we learned last week, had been engaged in secret talks with the Iranians since at least March if not earlier. It is not difficult to imagine the impression this must have made on the regime in Tehran and how Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei might have discussed the America file with subordinates: The White House negotiates behind Israel’s back, observes Khamenei. But we keep our scariest and most volatile assets, like Hezbollah, on a very loose leash to show our interlocutors that it would be wise to accept any offer as soon as possible. That the White House bargains in secret shows that they will take a deal so bad that they know before the fact that the Israelis would object.
The White House’s response to the election in June of Hassan Rouhani, and the media campaign it waged through press surrogates touting Rouhani’s “moderation,” also signaled America’s anxiety for a deal. The Americans have come down with Rouhani Fever, Khamenei must have noted. But they have been negotiating with our so-called hardliners for months now. All of the excitement about Rouhani ushering in a new age of comity and cooperation is simply political cover to prepare the U.S. public and American allies for a deal the White House has already decided to accept. This Obama is as mendacious as we are—except he’s weak. We’ll give him nothing but assurances, which, as a man who chronically confuses words with actions, he’ll gladly pocket. In short, we’ve won. But one last thing: Tell the negotiators that we demand immediate sanctions relief. We won’t haggle too much over numbers, any opening will prove sufficient to frame our victory.