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Five Questions With Mark Dubowitz on Iran Nuclear Negotiations, Sanctions

Mark Dubowitz is executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a hawkish think tank, and a widely called-upon expert on sanctions and Iran’s nuclear program. He and Richard Goldberg, a former top aide to Sen. Mark S. Kirk, R-Ill., recently released a report on what Congress should do in the event Iran comes to an agreement over its nuclear program with a group of countries known as P5+1 — talks that have a deadline of July 20 nearing.

In an interview with Five By Five, Dubowitz talked about the report, a little-discussed aspect of the negotiations that he considers the most important battleground for both sides and the effectiveness of sanctions overall, including those directed at Russia.

What was the aim of your recent report? It has been characterized very differently in various

I don’t know if you’re doing something right in Washington or wrong in Washington when you’re criticized by the left for trying to blow up negotiations and criticized by the right for trying to help Iranians win the negotiations. The goal of the report, after numerous conversations with administration officials over a number of months, was to consider the question of what happens after a deal with respect to sanctions. What sanctions relief should be provided to Iran in a quid pro quo for any nuclear concessions Iran makes as part of a deal? We try to lay out a sort of road map for how sanctions relief should be provided and done in a way that’s effective and measured and calibrated. And then also, what sanctions should be retained as an enforcement mechanism to support the deal, to ensure Iranian compliance and to be used as a response to any evidence of Iranian non-compliance? Our starting point for that analysis is, realistically speaking, we’re not going to threaten to bomb Iran every time they fall out of compliance with the agreement. We’re not going to be effective if all we do is demarche them every time they violate the agreement. Our report tries to offer specific recommendations on how you retain specific sanctions that can be used to back up any verification, inspection and monitoring.

How much do you think the recommendations contrast with what we know about what the administration and Congress are likely to do in the event of a deal?

It’s certainly too early to know. We have no visibility into what the administration is thinking with respect to sanctions relief except we know from public reporting they’re talking about a phased approach. They’ve talked about calibrating sanctions relief with Iranian compliance with respect to Iran’s nuclear concessions. I know from my conversations with administration officials that the Iranians are interested in relief being front-loaded and [the administration is] certainly more interested in wanting all the major concessions relief back-loaded. Who knows how the final negotiations will turn out. With respect to Congress, it’s the same thing. Congress believes it played an important role in the creation of sanctions architecture, and wants to play an important role in any post-deal sanctions architecture. We certainly have gotten a very good reception from the Hill; ultimately what that actually translates into operationally remains to be seen.

What are the areas of the negotiations where Iran is least likely to “give?”

This is something that hasn’t received a lot of attention: I think Iran is much more concerned with the sunset provisions than it is with anything else. What I mean by that is, the duration of the deal: how long will it last, and how much time will have to pass before Iran becomes a normalized nuclear power. Because all of the elements of the deal we all talk about all the time — centrifuges, Fordow — no matter what deal is ultimately concluded, the interim agreement already contemplates a point in time where Iran will be treated like all other members under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. If all of these other strictures are either significantly diminished or they fall away over time, Iran’s nuclear program is normalized and legitimized. It also could mean Iran at that point builds as many centrifuges as it wants or deems necessary for its civilian nuclear program, that they’re allowed to enrich uranium and stockpile it to any size. It may mean that there’s a very stringent inspection regime that becomes less stringent. The game Iran is playing, [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani has talked about turning Iran into Japan — what he means is turning Iran into a threshold nuclear power that is treated normally under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, without all these extra strictures and restraints.

What are the areas where the United States ought to be most aggressive and least compromising?

It’s very much related. I don’t think Iran’s nuclear program under this regime should ever be normalized. All of these strictures and constraints should remain in place for forever, until this regime is no longer this regime. That essentially means whatever agreement is put in place, as long as this regime is a state sponsor of terrorism, as long as it uses its financial system for money laundering and terror financing, that this regime should never have a normalized nuclear program. This regime is not Japan or Holland. we’re negotiating with [Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei, not King Willem-Alexander. I think the administration should be keenly uncompromising with the duration of the deal. If the administration insists on 20-25 years, and Iran insists on five years, a compromise 10 or 15 or even 20 years will be over in a flash. In very short order, this regime will emerge from under these strictures and constraints and be in a place to build an industrial-sized nuclear capacity. Then Khamenei will get what he always wanted: a powerful economy, regional influence and an industrial-sized nuclear capability which increases the likelihood that Iran can break out undetected into multiple nuclear weapons.

Sanctions have been at the forefront of the debates over Iran and Russia. Some researchers suggest sanctions don’t work very often. How effective have they been in both countries, or how could they be more effective?

When it comes to the Iran sanctions, I think they were very effective in finally persuading Iran to come to the negotiating table. But we’re still waiting to see how effective they are in persuading Iran to come to an agreement that prevents Iran from ever developing a nuclear program. We’ll never know how effective they could have been because the administration decided in 2013 to begin de-escalating the sanctions infrastructure. The Iran economy was on its back, and they allowed it to get on its knees. Sanctions are never a silver bullet; they’re more like silver shrapnel. They can’t work in isolation. They can wound a regime but they certainly cannot be a sole instrument of coercive statecraft. You need the credible threat of military force, backed by aggressive covert action and obviously aggressive and highly effective diplomacy. One mistake that I hope we don’t make going forward is to believe they are the only instrument of coercive statecraft.

That kind of gets us to Russia. I think the Russian sanctions, so far they have been somewhat effective but it depends on how you define success with Russia. If you believe that ultimately Putin’s game plan is to seize Crimea and then stop and for the world accept that as an established fact, then they have been very ineffective. If you believe they were designed to stop him from moving beyond Crimea to more Eastern European land grabs, they seem so far to have slowed his advances and inflicted a significant cost on the Russian economy and to at least have, so far, changed his calculus.

The future of sanctions as coercive statecraft depends on how effectively we view sanctions in a post-agreement context with Iran. If we make the mistake we made with respect to North Korea — where we prematurely provided sanctions relief in exchange for North Korean promises, only to discover that North Korea ended up violating all their commitments and we ended up losing our leverage — then the future of sanctions as an effective instrument of statecraft is highly suspect.

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