Last week as part of the administration’s latest feeble attempt at a Jewish charm offensive, Vice President Biden gave a speech to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy where he told the audience not to worry about the nuclear deal President Obama had struck with Iran. Biden’s bombastic reassurances lacked credibility. But just as important was a private talk given by Treasury Secretary Jack Lew in which he sought to allay fears about the way the president planned on lifting economic sanctions on Iran once the deal is finalized. Lew promised that if Iran was found to be cheating on its nuclear promises, those sanctions could easily be snapped back into place. But as Josh Rogin reports at BloombergView today, it appears Lew’s promises are not much more reliable than those made by Tehran. As it turns out the process by which sanctions could be reimposed will be anything but a snap. Nor is the administration prepared to treat the vast industries controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as tied to that group’s record of terrorism.
As Rogin reports, Lew left out a lot of details when he claimed last week that sanctions could be snapped back.
The first problem is that despite the administration’s claims, the Iranians have vowed not to sign anything that would not lift all sanctions immediately and permanently. President Obama’s track record on negotiations with Iran has been a steady series of concessions while Tehran stands its ground. That makes it difficult to imagine that Washington’s version of what the final draft will look like will be closer to reality than that of Tehran. But even if we assume that the final deal will conform to Lew’s promises about sanctions, there are clear problems with the way any such deal will be implemented.
The first is that although Lew says the president won’t ask Congress to lift the sanctions until Iran has proved its compliance that places the entire responsibility for that decision in the hands of an administration. Given that the president’s foreign policy legacy is involved, there is little doubt that its investment in preserving the agreement at all costs makes unlikely that the president will ever give up on Iran or declare it in violation of its promises.
More to the point, the process by which such a decision will be made will be the subject of a lengthy debate and subject to dissent from nations that will be even less inclined than the president to declare Iran in violation of the accord.
Just as important, the administration is drawing a broad distinction between branches of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, the regime’s terror sponsor as well as an economic powerhouse. Lew promised that the U.S. would rightly hold the IRGC’s Quds Force responsible for its terrorist actions and keep sanctions in place on them. But the rest of the IRGC’s vast infrastructure will be exempt from sanctions after the deal is implemented. Such a distinction will enable Tehran to go on funding terrorism through the IRGC’s vast holdings that amount to a third of the Iranian economy. Money, like terrorism is fungible but if you’re determined to turn a blind eye to how the Iranian regime operates, anything is possible.
Rogin also points out that Biden and Lew’s assertions that Iran hasn’t cheated on the interim agreement are, at best, debatable. And until Iran agrees to intrusive inspections of its nuclear facilities with no advance notice, confidence that the administration can actually detect cheating at any point, let alone in time to stop them in time, is highly unlikely.
The Iran deal is bad enough in that it can be easily violated and gives the Islamist retime two ways to get a bomb: one by cheating and the other by patiently waiting for it to expire while it legally continues to develop its nuclear options.
But the point here is not just that the deal the U.S. has accepted is weak, it’s that there is no mechanism in place that would actually provide any real accountability. Once sanctions are lifted, Western businesses will flock to Iran to take advantage of the opening. The economic and political incentives for returning to sanctions will be few for Western governments and Iran will take advantage. Once they are unraveled by a diplomatic stroke that Washington will never wish to disavow, they are not coming back short of an Iranian declaration that it has a bomb. Even then there will be those who will argue that a return to sanctions will be pointless.
Other than the president’s word — and that of his subordinates — there’s little reason to believe the sanctions will not vanish forever once the deal is signed. All of which means the West’s leverage over Iran hangs by a thread that is about to snap.