What would happen if Iran were to achieve what many describe as the unthinkable; a nuclear weapon? This very topic has driven both sides to the negotiating table and next week in Geneva talks will continue. Today, three distinguished panelists gathered at the Brookings Institution to discuss these negotiations and the future of Iran’s nuclear program. The panel was moderated by Tamara Cofman Wittes and featured Brookings Senior Fellows Robert Einhorn, Suzanne Maloney, and Kenneth Pollack.
Sanctions, sanctions, and more sanctions, dominated the conversation. It’s no secret that Iran’s economy has been crippled by severe sanctions aimed at deterring their enrichment of uranium. It’s also clear that while these sanctions have done little to deter their nuclear program, they have brought Iran to the table as Pollack described. Mr. Einhorn believes the oil and banking sanctions are the most crippling to Iran in part because their crude oil exports have been grinded to a near standstill. After the European Union discontinued their purchase of Iranian crude oil, other nations such as China and India cut back their imports which has been devastating to Iran. In a recent piece by Matt Clinch of CNBC, Clinch believes Iran – for a myriad of reasons – will be a tremendous mecca for future investors. His piece mirrors what Ms. Maloney had to say in terms of banking sanctions, that Iran’s influence in the global business community is severely hurt and they desperately want to turn this around. Iran has a lot to offer and this could be harnessed if Iran is allow to compete.
Pollack noted that the United States needs to be very careful about future sanctions imposed specifically referencing the bill passed by the house this past summer. He stated we don’t know how Iran will respond to new sanctions and he believes that the Administration must tell Congress to give the negotiations time before piling more onto Iran’s already burdened economy. The Administration must address those in Congress who feel we must squeeze the Iranians till they scream because currently, they are willing to negotiate substantially. Further sanctions may deter them and for Pollack, Plan B should only be implemented by the US and allies when the substance of negotiations fails – not the progress of Iran’s nuclear program. Furthermore, Pollack is skeptical of more sanctions because he feels they are unsustainable. For the first time in 34 years, both sides are willing to come to the negotiating table and a long term deal must be struck.
There have been conflicting views in the media lately about Rouhani’s ability to negotiate as well as what his true intentions are. Some believe he is in a bind because while he appears to be a moderate, he must appease the hardliners at home making many skeptical of his true intentions. Ms. Maloney noted that President Rouhani must deliver on these negotiations as he is under real pressure at home. She continued to say that the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has given him some running room and freedom to negotiate which indicates some level of confidence in Rouhani. Iran is really feeling the brunt of these sanctions and are desperate for a diplomatic solution.
There is also the issue of other actors in the region, namely Israel and Saudi Arabia. Mr. Pollack believes the United States must be transparent with our allies because our interests are their interests. He boldly noted that the Israelis do not trust President Obama and they believe he does not share their interests. They fear he may cut a deal leaving them out in the cold. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu states that Americans do not understand how dangerous Iranians truly are. Pollack cautions the Israelis especially if a deal is not struck. If a deal fails because of Israeli opposition, the world will turn against them. Israel does not want to be forced into a war with Iran.
Saudi Arabia is much more concerned with Iran than Israel is, however they have less leverage than Israel in terms of pushing Iran into a deal. For the Saudis, this issue concerns a broader war of Sunnis v. Shias and regional ethic power. Robin Wright from the Woodrow Wilson Center writes a deal may allow Iran to reign supreme in the region especially given the size of their Shiite population which also plays a role in the greater sectarian and ethnic identity war. Pollack stated that the Saudis do not want a deal because it could mean the end to US involvement against Iran. Pollack believes the Saudis turned down a seat on the UN Security Council solely because they do not want to face a potential vote on a resolution regarding a deal or additional sanctions against Iran.
So what type of deal would be acceptable? As Mr. Einhorn noted, a bad deal gives away the leverage of the United States in terms of major banking and oil sanctions. For Israel, a good deal would be to ban all enrichment of uranium and for Iran’s uranium to be exported which he noted would never happen. In fact, Iran is now willing to negotiate the level of enrichment with international officials which is a major step forward. An acceptable deal lies somewhere in the middle. Enrichment must be regulated while certain sanctions must be lifted to allow Iran to be competitive on the world stage again. The important thing to remember is a deal must be measured against military intervention or regime change and in the grand scope of things, a diplomatic compromise looks much better.
Many are optimistic about future negotiations with Iran but outside players may pose threats. Israel, our strongest ally in the region, may pose a problem for the United States. We must be mindful of their interests while looking out for our own. Preventing a nuclear Iran is in the best interest of the world. However it seems clear, completely halting enrichment will be near impossible. The trick will be finding a balance. Einhorn stated unfettered ability for Iran to enrich would lead P5+1 countries to walk while dismantling facilities and exporting enriched uranium would force Iran to walk. There is a balance and a deal is achievable. The most harrowing words spoken by the panelists came from Pollack who stressed the importance of a non-nuclear Iran but noting it is not worth going to war over. The question is, if talks fail, when will sanctions no longer be sustainable and when will Iran finally break?