Sanctions and Symmetry in the Iran Negotiations

Paul Pillar

Notwithstanding the obvious asymmetries in soon-to-resume nuclear negotiations with Iran (it's Iran's nuclear program, not the U.S. one, that is being restricted; it's the United States, not Iran, that is sanctioning someone else's economy) the perceptual and political similarities that Americans and Iranians have brought to this encounter are striking to anyone who has been following the subject closely. To begin with, the chief policy-makers in each country clearly want to reach an agreement. On the Iranian side this includes not only the foreign minister who has been conducting the negotiations and the president who has been directly overseeing them but also the Iranian policy-maker who matters most: the supreme leader. It is almost inconceivable that Ayatollah Khamenei would have made it possible for President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif to have gone as far as they have already gone, and to sign Iran up to the commitments they already have made in the preliminary agreement reached in late 2013, if he did not genuinely share the objective of completing the negotiations and reaching a final agreement.

Both the U.S. president and the Iranian supreme leader have publicly voiced skepticism, however, as to whether the negotiations will in fact succeed. Probably the expressed doubts are in each case partly tactical, to limit the perceived political damage to each leader should the negotiations fail. But the doubts probably also reflect genuine assessments of the challenges that each side faces in reaching, and securing domestic support for, an agreement.

That gets to one of the clearest elements of symmetry between the two sides. Each government is burdened with substantial opposition from domestic elements that oppose any U.S.-Iranian accord. The hardline opponents on each side act and sound remarkably alike. Each is embedded in a broader domestic political opposition to the incumbent presidential administration and is quick to exploit any setback to that administration for political advantage (and each realizes that if the nuclear negotiations can be torpedoed that would be a significant setback for the president they oppose). Each never tires of demonizing the other country and attributes the most malevolent intentions to it. Each fulminates about how its own country's leaders are supposedly conceding too much and giving away the store. Each couches its opposition in terms of getting a better agreement, when in fact it does not want any agreement at all.

A reminder of how much of a factor is hardline opposition in Iran came the other day when hardliners in the Iranian parliament forced a sort of no-confidence vote over how Zarif has been handling the negotiations. Zarif prevailed, but just barely. Only 125 of the 229 legislators present voted in his favor, with 86 voting against.

The next big ploy of hardline opponents in the United States will be to push a new version of sanctions legislation similar to what Senators Mark Kirk and Robert Menendez introduced in the previous Congress. The new version is still being written, but the previous version contained elements that might well have constituted a violation of the preliminary agreement, and if it had been enacted an unsurprising Iranian reaction—one that Iranian hardliners probably would have demanded—would have been to declare Iran's commitments under that agreement to be null and void and to walk away from the negotiating table. But let us assume, in line with what we have heard lately from the American hardliners, that the new version to be voted on as early as this month would not be a blatant violation of the existing agreement but instead would be a “conditional” measure that would impose additional sanctions on Iran if a final agreement were not reached by the deadlines that the negotiators had previously announced (March for a political agreement, and June for a full document with all technical details).

Now let us perform a thought experiment in which we imagine Iranian hardliners doing what would be their closest possible equivalent to what the American hardliners are trying to do. Imagine that the Iranian majlis, or parliament, enacts legislation that commits Iran to taking certain steps if agreement is not reached by the announced deadlines. Specifically, if there is no agreement, Iran would resume building up a stockpile of low-enriched uranium. It would resume enrichment of uranium to the 20 percent level. It would resume development of the nuclear reactor at Arak in ways that would facilitate use of it to produce plutonium. It would rescind the additional special access given to international inspectors and revert to the lesser level of inspection consistent with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and prior agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency. In other words, the Iranian hardliners' legislation, just like the American hardliners' legislation, would undo commitments made in the preliminary agreement of November 2013. And just like the American hardliners, the Iranian hardliners would justify their legislation as a conditional measure that would help to provide an incentive to the other side to negotiate seriously and not to drag out the talks indefinitely. As such, the measure would be portrayed as an aid to negotiations rather than an undermining of them.

What would the U.S. reaction be to such an action in the majlis? Would the legislation, as claimed, make the U.S. administration more inclined than before to make concessions, increasing the likelihood that an agreement would be reached on the announced schedule? Of course not. Americans of various political stripes would denounce the action of the majlis as a major show of Iranian bad faith. The talk in Washington would not be about making more U.S. concessions but instead about what the United States could do to pressure Iran in return. Those who had openly questioned Iran's seriousness about wanting an agreement would say, ”We told you so.” Even those in the U.S. administration with high confidence in the good will of Rouhani would have their faith shaken in his ability to implement the terms of an agreement. And American hardliners would voice the most outrage of all (however much they would privately welcome this boost to their own deal-killing endeavors).

What works in one direction works in the other. The responses to the imaginary legislation of Iranian hardliners point to the likely responses to the (unfortunately real) legislation being cooked up by American hardliners. Iranians of various stripes would see it as a major show of American bad faith. It would amplify the already considerable doubts in Tehran about true American intentions and about the ability of even a well-intentioned Barack Obama to make good on the U.S. side of a deal in the face of resistance by a Republican Congress. In Iranian eyes it would make any further Iranian concessions seem less apt to bring desirable results, thus more risky politically for any Iranian leader to offer, and thus less likely to be offered. Consequently the negotiations would be more likely to fail. U.S. officials conducting the negotiations know what, which is why they oppose the legislation. Those pushing the legislation know that, too, which is why they are pushing it.

It is usually only when speaking in private or when too inexperienced or naive to disguise true intentions that the pushers acknowledge their objective. More often they promote the idea that what they are doing will provide the United States with useful leverage and induce Iran to make still more concessions. And some people genuinely believe that. This is one of several respects in which Americans tend to believe that bargaining with another state works in an asymmetric, exceptionalist way, in which other humans respond to pressures and inducements in a fundamentally different manner from how Americans themselves respond, when in fact there is far more symmetry. Thinking in role-reversal terms might help to correct that mistaken belief.                                                   


TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East

North Korea Wants To Buy Russia's Super Advanced Su-35 Fighter Jet

The Buzz

North Korea’s Kim Jong-un sent a special envoy to Moscow to ask Russia to sell him its most advanced fighter jets, South Korean and Russian media are reporting.

On Thursday, a senior South Korean military official told JoongAng Ilbo, a conservative South Korean daily newspaper, that North Korea officially asked Russia to sell it the Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jet. Notably, the Russian state-owned ITAR-TASS news agency picked up the JoongAng Ilbo report on its website on Friday.

According to the original report, the request was made in November when Choe Ryong-hae, North Korea’s number two, traveled to Russia as Kim Jong-un’s special envoy. During the trip, Choe met with Vladimir Putin and gave the Russian president a letter from Kim.

“Choe Ryong-hae, who visited Moscow as a special envoy of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in November last year, asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to provide Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets,” JoongAng Ilbo quoted the military source as saying. The source added that he didn’t believe Russia would consent to the sale because of international sanctions against North Korea.

(Recommended: 5 Russian Weapons of War NATO Should Fear

As Dave Majumdar wrote in The National Interest last month, the Su-35 “is the most potent fighter currently in operation with the Russian Air Force. The powerful twin-engine fighter, which is an advanced derivative of the original Soviet-era Su-27, is high flying, fast and carries an enormous payload. That, combined with its advanced suite of avionics, makes the Su-35 an extremely dangerous foe to any U.S. fighter, with the exception of the stealthy Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor.”

The 4++ generation fighter jet would be a substantial upgrade over the North Korean Air Force’s current arsenal, which mostly consists of outdated Chinese and Russian platforms like the MiG-21 and Su-25. North Korea purchased these aircraft from Russia in the waning days of the Soviet Union.

North Korea has long sought more modernized aircraft to compete with the South Korean and American fleets. However, as the military source told JoongAng Ilbo, “The North produces many weapons systems domestically, but it appears to have sought Russia’s help because building fighter jets requires more complex technologies.”

(Recommended: 5 Weapons Russia Could Use in An Arctic War)

It’s not the first time that North Korea has gone abroad in search of more modernized fighters. Kim Jong-un’s father and predecessor, Kim Jong-Il, asked Russia to sell it advanced fighter aircraft during summits in 2001 and 2002. Kim Jong-Il returned to Moscow in 2011 to again ask Russia to sell it fighter jets. That same year, the former North Korean leader also traveled to Beijing to ask then-Chinese President Hu Jintao to sell North Korea J-10 and J-11 stealth fighters. Hu rejected the request.

(Recommended: 5 North Korean Weapons of War S. Korea Should Fear)

Even if Russia won’t sell Pyongyang the Su-35, Moscow has shown an interest in strengthening ties to the Hermit Kingdom in recent months. Last month, a Kremlin spokesperson announced that Putin has invited Kim Jong-un to Moscow in May of this year to celebrate the 70 anniversary of Nazi Germany’s defeat. If Kim accepts the invitation, it would be his first trip abroad since taking over power in North Korea following his father’s death in late 2011.  

Zachary Keck is the managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.

Image: Wikimedia/Aleksander Markin

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia-Pacific

Asia’s Maritime Disputes 101: A Legal Primer

The Buzz

Editor's Note: This is the first installment in a series of primers produced in partnership with the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC).

“Words have meanings.” It’s easy to dismiss this statement as a truism. But words – and their meanings – do hold particular import in the multi-layered realm of maritime territorial disputes, where the distinction between a rock and an island can mean the difference between hundreds of square miles of Exclusive Economic Zone. At times, usage of words has itself opened new fronts in conflicts, as nationalist fights over names of bodies of waters in textbooks have shown. Those wishing to understand and accurately describe maritime Asia’s long-standing territorial disputes must wade through a colorful and evolving vocabulary. So, in an effort to help bring clarity to the lexicon we offer this guide to common terms in use.

U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS): UNCLOS is the international agreement that resulted from the Third UN Conference on the Law of the Sea from 1973-1982. It establishes the maritime zones that divide the modern seas, and the rights and sovereignty of states within them. It also provides means for determining sovereignty within disputed areas. The United States has neither signed nor ratified UNCLOS but regards all but several clauses relating to the International Seabed Authority as customary international law that it therefore follows. Several additional key international terms below are defined in UNCLOS. A full reading of the Convention is highly recommended for any serious student of international affairs to gain a better appreciation of the nuances of the terms than can be spelled out here:

Territorial Waters: Extends 12 nautical miles (nm) from a country’s internationally agreed upon baseline. A coastal state has full sovereignty over its territorial waters, but other states’ vessels (including military, but not aircraft) enjoy the Right of Innocent Passage through these waters so long as their passage is “continuous and expeditious,” and not “prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal State.” For example naval vessels cannot engage in spying during the transit and submarines must transit surfaced. A similar concept is that of Transit Passage, enabling the “continuous and expeditious” passage of all ships and aircraft through most international straits, as well as archipelagic states’ sea-lane passages (straits formed by two islands of the same state).

Contiguous Zone: Extends from 12nm out to 24nm from a country’s baseline. Coastal states’ rights here are limited to “customs, fiscal, immigration [and] sanitary laws and regulations.”

Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ): Extends 200 nm out from the baseline, wherein a state enjoys exclusive rights to natural resources such as fish and oil. States may also enjoy some resource exploitation rights in the seabed and subsoil beyond the EEZ depending on the lay of the Continental Shelf.

In ratifying UNCLOS, China made a number of qualifying statements, the first of which read, in part: “the People's Republic of China shall enjoy sovereign rights and jurisdiction over an exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles and the continental shelf.” According to Bernard Cole, only fifteen of the 192 UNCLOS signatories take the same position as China on this issue.

Artificial Islands: Within its EEZ, a state has the “exclusive right to construct and to authorize and regulate the construction, operation and use of” artificial islands. However, “Artificial islands, installations and structures do not possess the status of islands. They have no territorial sea of their own, and their presence does not affect the delimitation of the territorial sea, the exclusive economic zone or the continental shelf.” Artificial islands have come to prominence in recent months due to China’s extensive reclamation projects in the South China Sea.

High Seas: Anything beyond a state’s EEZ. “No State may validly purport to subject any part of the high seas to its sovereignty.” The high seas are sometimes also referred to synonymously as International Waters, but this latter term is not well defined as it can also be used for everything outside a nation’s territorial waters. Note: Per UNCLOS, Piracy can technically occur only on the high seas or “in a place outside the jurisdiction of any state,” such as the waters of a failed state. This is why reporting of piracy statistics can be inaccurate unless it uses the term Piracy and Armed Robbery to capture piracy occurring within a nation’s EEZ.

The Freedom of Navigation: The overarching right of ships (and aircraft with Freedom of Overflight) to transit the sea unimpeded except as restricted by international law. Some states, such as China, claim rights not afforded to it by UNCLOS or customary international law, namely the ability to restrict activities of military assets and aircraft not inbound within its contiguous zone and EEZ (see for example the recent dispute over the right of U.S. P-8 Poseidon aircraft to fly outside of its territorial waters).

The United States conducts Freedom of Navigation operations to register its non-concurrence with China’s position on territorial rights, thereby preventing it from becoming accepted customary international law.

ITLOS (International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea): Established by UNCLOS to help settle maritime dispute. Its mandate is to “adjudicate disputes arising out of the interpretation and application of the Convention.” In 2013, the Philippines submitted a case to the ITLOS seeking a ruling declaring China’s Nine-Dash Line not in accordance with UNCLOS (and therefore not a valid basis for its South China Sea claims). The president of the ITLOS appointed an Arbitral Tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague to hear the case, and it is expected to make its ruling in the next two years. For its part, China is not taking part in the proceedings and has indicated it will not abide by the ruling. At the end of last year Vietnam surprised many by submitting a position paper to the court arguing that the Line is “without legal basis,” and asking that its rights and interests be considered in the ruling, but it is itself not a party to (has not “joined”) the case against China.

Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ): An ADIZ is not covered by any international agreement (and therefore there is no one definition) and does not confer any sovereignty over airspace or water, but has arguably become a part of customary international law due to its growing usage and acceptance.  Foreign Affairs defined an ADIZ as “a publicly defined area extending beyond national territory in which unidentified aircraft are liable to be interrogated and, if necessary, intercepted for identification before they cross into sovereign airspace.” The rules China stipulated with its establishment of an ADIZ in the East China Sea in late 2013, however, garnered widespread criticism and non-observation due to its surprise announcement and application to those flights not intending to enter sovereign airspace.

Conduct for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES): CUES provides a set of non-binding “safety procedures, a basic communication plan and basic maneuvering instructions” when naval vessels and aircraft unexpectedly encounter each other at sea. It was agreed upon at the 14th Western Pacific Naval Symposium in April 2014, and while code of conduct, CUES should not be confused with the much-discussed and as yet elusive ASEAN Code of Conduct below. CUES was followed up in November 2014 at a summit between Presidents Xi and Obama with the U.S.-China Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) On the Rules of Behavior for the Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters. The MOU provides technical specifics and expected behavior for interactions between the two nations’ forces as spelled out in an annex on ship-to-ship encounters, with an air-to-air annex to come in 2015, although leaving the differing interpretations of permissible activities within a nation’s EEZ intentionally unresolved.

Code of Conduct (CoC): In 2002, the ASEAN member states and China signed a voluntary Declaration on the Conduct (DoC) of parties in the South China Sea “to resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force, through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned.”

This was to be the precursor to a binding CoC, but as Carl Thayer ably documents implementation of the CoC was kept in check for a decade by China and focus on Guidelines to Implement the DoC, which were approved in 2012. However, promises in the DoC such as to refrain from then uninhabited maritime features and to handle differences in a constructive manner have since been violated by actions including several parties’ ongoing construction and expansion on features under their control.

As a result of this and because the Guidelines have been removed as the focus by adoption, many ASEAN states, with the Philippines foremost among them, have returned attention to concluding a legally binding CoC. There have been recent indications that China may be willing to soon start serious discussions about the Code of Conduct, but it is unclear whether it will be willing to accede to (let alone adhere to) any potent enforcement mechanisms.

Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. He is the founder and president of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), a graduate of Georgetown University and the U.S. Naval War College, and a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council.

Image: Wikimedia

TopicsSecurityInternational LawSouth China Sea RegionsAsia-Pacific

This Iranian Paper Has More Guts Than the NY Daily News

The Buzz

Yesterday, two editors, one in New York and one in Tehran, received photographs of people holding up covers of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine whose offices were attacked for its controversial depictions of Mohammad. The cover in the photos didn’t actually show Mohammad—they showed a rabbi pushing an imam in a wheelchair. But even that was too much for one of the editors. They opened up their photo-editing software and pixelated the cover.

So which editor was it that chose to censor a photograph? Was it the one in Iran, where dozens of journalists languish in prison, where those imprisoned journalists are often denied necessary medical care, where access to foreign media is frequently blocked and where newspapers are always in danger of being closed by the government? Or was it in New York, where journalists enjoy state-level shield laws and live in a country that rarely censors or arrests members of the press?

The censor was in the offices of the New York Daily News, which has published several blurred photographs to illustrate the story.

Meanwhile, in Tehran, Shargh Daily tweeted both a picture of slain Charlie Hebdo editor Stephane Charbonnier holding up the rabbi/imam cover:

and a picture from Charlie Hebdo’s last tweet before the attack, mocking Islamic State group leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi:

Shargh Daily didn’t run any of the cartoons in its print edition today, and Twitter is officially blocked in Iran (though still used), so the Iranian audience reached was probably small. Yet it was still a real risk, and one the paper knows too well. The reformist daily been closed and hauled before court several times before, including for running a cartoon the authorities didn’t like. Shargh used the image as journalists the world over should: matter-of-factly, as an illustration of one of the attack’s victims and the work that put him in the crosshairs. They didn’t hide the image, but they also didn’t use it egregiously, to shock or to offend rather than to illustrate. It was part of the story. It was good journalism.

While the New York Daily News censored the cartoons, the tabloid can hardly claim that it did so to keep deliberately shocking images out of its pages. Its cover today showed one of the terrorists standing over a wounded French policeman, rifle pointed at his head, moments before he executed the officer. The headline reads “NO MERCY”:

Many newspapers and all major U.S. television networks have declined to show Charlie Hebdo cartoons. As Buzzfeed’s Rosie Gray documented, the Associated Press even removed images from its photo service that had contained the rabbi/imam cover. Refusing to show the images is debatable. But the New York Daily News took things a big step further, actively modifying the content of the images, even as it ran a lurid, unmodified one on its front page. Perhaps they could use a dash of their Iranian colleagues’ sobriety and courage.

John Allen Gay, an assistant managing editor at The National Interest, is coauthor of War with Iran: Political, Military, and Economic Consequences (Rowman and Littlefield, 2013). He tweets at @JohnAllenGay.

TopicsMedia RegionsIranUnited States

Would Iran Start a Nuclear War?

The Buzz

I’ve read with interest Andy Nikolic’s recent articles about the need to address the threat posed by an Iranian nuclear capability. In October he wrote that “the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran would dwarf that which is posed by ISIL,” and this week he reminded us that:

“the threat now posed by a nuclear malevolent Iran is emphatically much worse. As the crow—or more aptly, the missile—flies, the distance between Tehran and Tel Aviv is just under 1600 kilometres (approximately 1000 miles). Hence, the time from launch to impact is brief; potentially mere minutes to Armageddon.”

The language is dramatic but the posts lack much by the way of reasoned argument. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a devoted counter-proliferator and think that a nuclear-armed Iran should be stopped simply to avoid other states seeking to do the same. But I disagree with the view advocated by Andy Nikolic and others that a nuclear-armed Iran will seek to use those weapons to become more regionally influential or to launch them against Israel.

(Recommended: 5 Iranian Weapons of War Israel Should Fear

The main reason I oppose such views is because they lack intellectual rigour. Firstly, simply having nuclear weapons doesn’t make anyone more influential. Pakistan and India are no more influential following their acquisition of a nuclear capability than they were before it. Influence comes through a range of media, and Iran has always understood that in many ways it’s an outsider in the region—ethnically, linguistically and religiously different from its Arab and Turkic neighbours. Hence its reliance on allies and proxies to exert influence—and that wouldn’t change if it became a nuclear-capable country.

Second, Andy’s argument is predicated on Iran’s seeing a nuclear weapon as simply an offensive weapon. The reality is that nuclear weapons are often the ultimate defensive weapon. Tehran could look east and see how Islamabad’s nuclear capability has stopped it from going to war with India, and it could look west and see how Tel Aviv’s undeclared capability has deterred its neighbours from invading it. Its nuclear capability hasn’t stopped conflict or guaranteed military success for Israel, as it has faced two intifadas, invaded Gaza, had to withdraw from southern Lebanon and fought a short but bloody war against Hizbullah in 2006. But none of those have been existential threats.

(Recommended: Five Israeli Weapons of War Iran Should Fear

The argument follows that Tehran sees a nuclear capability as the ultimate shield, rather than as a potential sword. Having been invaded by the British and the Soviets in World War II, and then suffering through eight years of a war with Iraq backed by its Arab neighbours and some in the West that cost hundreds of thousands of lives, it’s easy to see the logic of Tehran viewing a nuclear weapon as the ultimate shield.

In order to protect the Islamic Revolution the leadership seeks to guarantee its survival from external attack first and foremost and a nuclear weapon would do that. Any preemptive use of such weapons would be nearly guaranteed to receive more in return and hence end the rule of those charged with ruling in accordance with God’s will. Again, there seems to be no reason why the Supreme Leader would seek to do such a thing. Some have argued that a strain of Shi’a millenarianism would see Iran loose off volleys of nuclear weapons in order to set the conditions to hasten the arrival of the Awaited Imam. There’s no explanation of how that would follow, nor evidence of any support for such a concept by the Supreme Leader, who is in charge of Iran’s nuclear file.

(Recommended: 5 Israeli Weapons of War ISIS Should Fear

Andy claims that Iran exhibits “a determination to leverage the anticipated benefits of that [nuclear] investment” and that it seeks a nuclear capability “because of the prestige, power and authority which Iran believes such weapons would give it, both regionally and beyond.” What he doesn’t do is explain exactly what he sees those benefits to be, nor how he sees Tehran achieving power and authority as a nuclear state. I agree that Tehran seeks regional influence commensurate with how it views its rightful place in the international system. But I don’t see how having a nuclear capability achieves that other than by safeguarding it from existential threats. Rather, I’d argue that Iranian national power, and hence that of the Islamic Revolution, will be furthered by leveraging its enormous potential economic and human capabilities. In many ways that’s what its Gulf neighbours truly fear.

Rodger Shanahan is at ANU’s National Security College and is a non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy. This piece first appeared in ASPI's The Strategist here

Image: Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsIran