Iranian Perspectives on the Nuclear Deal

The nuclear agreement that the United States reached with Iran last fall was not without controversy; I argued then and continue to believe that implementing this deal was and is our best option for limiting Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon. Iran has made significant progress on implementing the terms of the agreement, despite the continued efforts of the Republican-controlled Congress to undermine it. (The specifics of the deal are rather complicated; although many international sanctions were lifted against Iran in the fall—particularly those affecting the oil industry—many sanctions that are part of U.S. law remain in place, and Congress seems determined to maintain these existing sanctions, regardless of how this would hamper efforts at reconciliation.) Some observers viewed the gains made by moderates in Iran’s elections last month as evidence that the nuclear deal may be helping to marginalize more hard-line conservative forces in the Iranian government, as Obama and many others had hoped it would.

This weekend, the Opinion page of the New York Times featured a project by photographer Ako Salemi, who photographed and interviewed people in Tehran and Mashhad about their opinions of the nuclear deal. In keeping with one of the themes of last week’s post, it provides us a unique window into how Iranians view the nuclear agreement and its impact on Iran’s membership in the international community. We should not assume that this represents a random sample of Iranian opinion, but Salemi does manage to capture an interesting cross-section of Iranian society.

It is clear from the interviews that not everyone views the deal as likely to have a positive impact. Rahman Sanaie, a janitor who lives in Iran, asserted that, “Nothing will change in my life, maybe only a slight increase in my salary. I hope it will bring peace for my country.” Amir Hosseinzadeh argued, “The deal has no effect on my life and gives me no hope for my future, either. I think only rich people will see changes in their life. Just look at the increase in the price of beef.” Feryal Mostofi, a businesswoman living in Tehran, was somewhat more optimistic. “I think the renewed cultural dialogue between Iran and other countries is one of the most important benefits of this agreement. It is useful for Iranian women to come out from this isolation and become more active in business.” Many other perspectives are represented among the photographs and I encourage you to check out the project for yourself.  It is a vivid illustration of the richness of political dialogue in another country at a time when we are tempted to view other societies as homogenous and monolithic.

Iran Nuclear Agreement: Diplomacy Bears Fruit

Over the weekend, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) certified that Iran had met all of its commitments to roll back and limit its nuclear programs under the terms of a U.S.-backed deal reached last summer. In exchange, some economic sanctions have been lifted and the West will unfreeze roughly $100 billion in Iranian assets. The lifting of these sanctions should open up new opportunities for investment in Iran’s economy, particularly in oil. The deal also included a prisoner exchange in which five Americans were freed from Iranian custody.

Under the terms of the agreement, Iran has shipped 98 percent of its nuclear fuel to Russia, shut down a reactor designed to produce plutonium, and dismantled more than 12,000 centrifuges used in the production of highly enriched uranium, among other initiatives. The New York Times has a great series of graphics explaining how the deal limits Iran’s ability to produce a nuclear weapon here.  It is important to note that most aspects of the American trade embargo remain in place.  This nuclear deal lifts many international sanctions on Iran’s oil and financial industries, which will provide the country with much-needed cash in a period of low oil prices.

There are, of course, no guarantees that this agreement will permanently eliminate Iran’s ability to produce a nuclear weapon. The long-term success of the agreement depends on the IAEA’s ability to access and monitor sites in Iran to verify continued compliance. This proved to be a major stumbling block in US-Iraq relations in the 1990s, but it should be noted that the Iraqis never did succeed in restarting a program capable of producing a nuclear weapon during all those years of fighting about IAEA inspections. (More on this in my forthcoming book, Cheap Threats, which I will be discussing on the blog in the coming weeks.)

As I argued this fall and as the Obama administration has consistently asserted, this agreement is the best available means for curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The administration should see the successful implementation of this agreement as a major foreign policy achievement—one that took years of painstaking negotiations without the instant gratification of bombing or other short-term military instruments. Critics assert that the deal leaves the United States and its allies vulnerable, that it does not do enough to disarm the “rogue” Iranian regime, that negotiating makes the United States look weak…there is no shortage of articles (or Presidential candidates) criticizing it. Are there reasons to be concerned about Iran’s foreign policies? Absolutely—but the same can and should be said about its rival Saudi Arabia.

Iran’s compliance with the agreement also dovetails nicely with last week’s discussion of North Korea and the concept of rationality. Critics have long alleged that Iran, like North Korea, is a rogue nation with crazy leaders bent on hastening the arrival of the apocalypse. This deal demonstrates that it is possible to negotiate with regimes that we do not necessarily understand and that do not necessarily share our own views of the international system. Of course, comparing Iran and North Korea is a little like comparing apples and oranges, and North Korea has successfully manipulated international negotiations to its own benefit on several occasions. We can, however, take this agreement as evidence of the promise of diplomacy in a world that CNN would like us to believe is teetering on the brink of meltdown.

Economic Sanctions: The Iran Case

On November 2, the New York Times reported that Iran has begun the process of decommissioning thousands of centrifuges used for the production of highly-enriched uranium in compliance with the deal it reached with the international community this summer.   Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has endorsed the deal (with some conditions), but there is still some wrangling within the Iranian government over the execution of the deal. Under the terms of the deal, Iran must also convert one of its nuclear facilities into a light-water reactor (less useful for the creation of materials that could be used in a nuclear weapon), and it must make a series of disclosures about the nature of its nuclear activities. After the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) verifies that Iran has fulfilled its responsibilities under the deal, the comprehensive economic sanctions against Iran will be lifted.

I have been thinking a lot about how this case will be viewed by scholars of economic sanctions. Will we think of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal as a case in which economic sanctions were successful? How would we know?

The term “economic sanctions” can refer to a wide range of punitive measures, and can include the freezing of a foreign leader’s assets, penalties imposed on a country’s financial system, banning the export of luxury goods to a country (a tactic we’ve tried with North Korea), and more comprehensive measures designed to stop the flow of goods into or out of a country. Different types of sanctions are supposed to work in different ways. For example, sanctions imposed against an enemy leader are intended to punish that leader or force him/her to change his/her behavior; the logic behind more comprehensive measures is that a population forced to suffer under heavy trade sanctions will pressure their government to change policies or perhaps overthrow the sitting regime. The United States currently has economic sanctions of some type in place against dozens of countries and non-state actors (like criminal organizations). The Department of the Treasury maintains a list of current sanctions here, if you would like to take a look.

Measuring the effectiveness of economic sanctions as an instrument of foreign policy is actually quite difficult. It can be relatively easy to measure the direct impact of sanctions—say, how much oil we are preventing a country from selling in a given month or year—but it is much, much harder to determine the extent to which sanctions influence the political behavior of other states. Just because the United States imposes sanctions and then the targeted state subsequently changes its behavior, this does not necessarily mean that the sanctions caused the change in behavior. It is just as possible that the change was due to domestic political factors in the targeted country, for example.

The best and most comprehensive study[1] on economic sanctions of which I am aware estimates that sanctions are effective—meaning they had some impact on the desired change in target behavior—in roughly one third of cases in which they are applied (and in some of these cases, additional instruments were also used against the target state). Sanctions tend to work best when the sanctioner makes relatively modest demands and when many countries cooperate to target the sanctioned country.

I don’t know how the Iran case will be recorded, and I think it’s far too early to make a confident assessment. First, we would have to agree about the purpose of the sanctions to assess whether they have been effective or not—were the sanctions intended to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons indefinitely, or were they designed to compel Iran to reach an agreement with the international community about its nuclear program? In the case of the first goal, we will be waiting forever to determine whether the sanctions worked (or at least until such a point when we could confidently declare that they had failed). In the case of the latter, we will need time to assess how the sanctions influenced the thinking of Iran’s top decision makers. That information may be very difficult to obtain. Leaders often have an incentive to publicly claim that sanctions (or other coercive instruments) did not affect their calculations, lest they appear weak to domestic or international rivals. We will have to wait and see, but if we do find out that the sanctions played a role in Iran’s decision to reach the agreement this summer, then I think this case is likely to be cited as a significant success for economic sanctions.

[1] Gary Hufbauer et al., Economic Sanctions Reconsidered, 3rd Edition (Peterson Institute for International Economics, 2009).