It is widely rumored that French objections prevented agreement on what would have been a bad deal with Iran at the Geneva talks this weekend. If so, I join my colleagues who have already written on the subject in a heart-felt Vive la France!
But the negotiations, while interrupted, have not ended. They are due to resume November 20. The question is what offer the P5+1 (i.e., the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany) will put on the table next time.
This time around, the U.S. was apparently dangling the carrot of giving the mullahs access to tens of billions of dollars in Iranian funds frozen in Western banks and lifting some existing sanctions. Iran, its economy rapidly deteriorating, desperately needs access to those reserves. In return, however, Iran was apparently not willing to give up its supposed “right” to enrich uranium–i.e., its ability to maintain breakout capacity to make a nuclear weapon on short notice. Nor, if the leaks are to be believed, was Iran willing to stop construction on a new plutonium heavy-water reactor at Arak, which gives it another path to the bomb.
The fact that Iran was not willing to take what the French foreign minister called a “sucker’s deal” shows just how committed it is to the nuclear program and how hard it will be to achieve meaningful results in these talks.
The debate now in Washington is what to do about further sanctions. Many voices in and out of Congress argue for enacting even tougher sanctions on Iranian finances that would effectively collapse the value of Iran’s currency. That certainly makes more sense than prematurely lifting existing sanctions. But Washington doesn’t have to do either.
If Iran is serious about a nuclear freeze, then the appropriate response is not a dismantlement of sanctions–that should only occur if Iran renounces its “right” of enrichment and begins to dismantle its nuclear program. The appropriate response to Iran verifiably stopping work on building a nuclear weapon should be the U.S. and its allies stopping to work on enacting further sanctions.
The threat of more sanctions being enacted by Congress should serve as an effective cudgel to win minimal concessions from the Iranians, assuming they are serious about getting a deal. And delaying the enactment of these additional sanctions costs little–whereas giving Iran access to frozen assets and partially lifting existing sanctions is a gift of inestimable valuable to the Islamic Republic. Such a concession, which would be hard to reverse, should be traded only for something more substantial than a temporary pause in the Iranian nuclear program.