Chorus grows against Obama administration's sanctions-heavy Iran policy

The Obama administration's effort to end Iran's nuclear program has focused on punitive measures, with little diplomatic outreach. Critics say this jeopardizes negotiations.

(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Barack Obama during a meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah II, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Friday, April 26, 2013.

America’s nuclear negotiators with Iran got it all wrong, according to a growing chorus of critics arguing that overreliance on pressure and sanctions may be jeopardizing a diplomatic deal. 

The Obama administration has implemented a host of crippling sanctions on Iran targeting its central bank and lifeblood oil exports. The goal has been to pressure Iran into giving up its most sensitive nuclear work, which could be a pathway to an atomic bomb.

But a year of high-profile talks between Iran and world powers has yielded little progress. Now a number of senior former US officials and analysts say a White House obsession with the pressure track may be backfiring, and are calling for a pivot toward the diplomatic track to reestablish balance. 

“I was in the [State] Department when they kept talking about the so-called two-track policy, and it was clear the whole thing was nonsense; there never were two tracks,” says John Limbert, the former US deputy assistant secretary of State for Iran from 2009 to 2010.

“The sanctions took all the air out of the room. It was 95 percent sanctions, and that was on a good day.”

The US 'knows' sanctions

One reason for the sanctions focus is “we know how to do them. It’s familiar. And to do them, we don’t have to deal with the Iranians; we deal with the British, the United Nations, the Russians, the Chinese,” says Ambassador Limbert, who was also held captive in Iran during the 1979-81 hostage crisis, and speaks fluent Persian.

“Whereas diplomacy with Iran, that’s hard. Nobody knows how to do that, and every time we’ve tried, we’ve failed. And as soon as we fail we’ve given up and gone back to doing what we know how to do.”

Limbert, who now teaches at the US Naval Academy, is among a growing number of people calling for a recalibration of the American strategy on Iran – a greater emphasis on diplomacy and real incentives, like substantial sanctions relief – in exchange for real concessions by Iran.

“It is time for the administration to make the sweat equity investment in negotiations equal to what it has done on sanctions and the potential to use military force,” Tom Pickering, the former US undersecretary of State for political affairs, said at the launch last week in Washington of a report by The Iran Project, an independent group of former officials and professionals that seeks to improve official US-Iran ties. 

“First and foremost we believe the president needs to make that decision – ‘I want a deal’ – and instruct his people to get a deal," he said. 

Mr. Pickering and Limbert were among 35 signatories of the report, which included other veteran diplomats and officials like Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser; Ryan Crocker, former ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and other trouble spots; Lee Hamilton, a former congressman and vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission; and former Central Intelligence Agency chief Michael Hayden.

There are signs that message is getting through. Despite a strong desire on Capitol Hill and in Israel for more sanctions against Iran, Secretary of State John Kerry asked Congress last Thursday to hold off: “We don’t need to spin this up at this point in time…. You need to leave us the window to try to work the diplomatic channel,” he said.

Fewer options

The widening bid for better diplomacy comes after the latest round of nuclear talks in the Kazakh city of Almaty earlier this month failed to narrow differences between Iran and the P5+1 group (the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany).

Calling for “strengthening the diplomatic track in order to seize the opportunity created by the pressure track,” The Iran Project notes that while US policies “possibly slowed the expansion of Iran’s nuclear program,” they also “may have narrowed the options for dealing with Iran by hardening the regime’s resistance to pressure.”

The report states that “it seems doubtful that pressure alone will change the decisions of Iran’s leaders,” though stronger diplomacy “that includes the promise of sanctions relief in exchange for verifiable cooperation” could lead to a deal. Another risk of current policy, warns the report: “Sanctions-related hardships may be sowing the seeds of long-term alienation between the Iranian people and the United States.”

The current P5+1 offer, which has been seen by The Christian Science Monitor, calls upon Iran to halt enrichment of uranium to 20 percent purity – which is a few technical steps away from bomb-grade of more than 90 percent – and “reduce readiness” of a deeply buried enrichment facility by disconnecting and removing key equipment.

After those steps, the P5+1 would provide partial sanctions relief on gold transfers and petrochemical exports, but not on far more painful financial or oil sanctions. Iran says the offer is unbalanced, and wants a more “reciprocal” approach.

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated in February that pressure and sanctions are akin to the US “pointing a gun at Iran and say[ing] either negotiate or we will shoot.” In March, Mr. Khamenei said, “if the Americans sincerely want” to resolve the nuclear issue “they should stop being hostile towards the Iranian nation in words and in action.”

Both sides in the nuclear negotiations have staked out positions unacceptable to the other. Iran has signaled repeatedly in the past two years a willingness to cap its 20 percent enrichment, but has balked at the low price on offer.

“I think the answer is probably pretty simple. We’re going to have to sweeten the offer on sanctions relief,” former US assistant secretary of State under the George W. Bush administration and veteran troubleshooter James Dobbins said at the report launch. Sanctions should be suspended, not dropped, he said, until Iran also demonstrates it can hold to its side of any bargain.

“Is the level of mistrust so high, that it doesn’t matter at the end of the day what we offer?” asks Limbert. “Anything short of a full surrender – and maybe even that – the Iranians are going to say, ‘Well, obviously this is some trick…we’re not sure how you’re doing it, but we know you are.’”

The same applies to US suspicions of Iran, adds Limbert: “That’s exactly the way the two sides operate. This nuclear issue has gotten so invested with manhood [that] neither side feels it can back down.”

Has Obama already failed?

The Iran Project report is only the latest critique of White House handling of Iran that raises questions about missed opportunities and even the desire to make a deal.

The Atlantic Council earlier this month called for the US to prepare a road map that clarifies a “step-by-step reciprocal and proportionate plan” to lift sanctions as Iran makes its own moves. “To make meaningful concessions, Iran needs to see off-ramps and an endgame,” the Washington think tank concluded

Likewise, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Federation of American Scientists this month determined: “Washington’s overwhelming focus on coercion and military threats has backed US policymakers into a rhetorical corner.” 

Yet a further report, published by the International Crisis Group in February, noted how Iran and the West “view the sanctions through very dissimilar prisms.” While the US and Europe count on a “cost-benefit analysis” such that Iran will eventually cave in to hardship, “the world looks very different from Tehran [where] the one thing considered more perilous than suffering from sanctions is surrendering to them.”

That disconnect has bedeviled the Obama White House, writes former administration official Vali Nasr in a book published this month, “The Dispensable Nation.”

“The dual-track policy only gave Iran a reason to dig in deeper and clutch its nuclear ambitions tighter,” writes Mr. Nasr, who is now dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

“In the end, Obama’s Iran policy failed. He pushed ahead with sanctions for the same reason Lyndon Johnson kept up the bombing of North Vietnam – neither could think of anything else to do," asserts Nasr. "Obama’s sanctions-heavy approach did not change Iranian behavior; instead it encouraged Iran to accelerate its race to nuclear capability.” 

Creating a solution may require a change in approach, say the authors of The Iran Project report.

“We have to do something the Iranians aren’t expecting, that gets them to stop and say, ‘Wait a minute… maybe the Americans are serious,’” said James Walsh, a nonproliferation expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, at the report launch.

“The only way this hard stuff will get done is if the president of the United States makes it his issue,” added Mr. Walsh. “Absent that, we’re going to continue to do what we’ve done over and over again, only it will get worse.”

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