The Right Way to Squeeze Iran

To get across the finish line, the U.S. should offer Iran bigger sticks AND more carrots.

The likelihood that the Tehran leadership will agree to a deal constraining its nuclear program far more tightly than the current interim deal depends on how much it values a “yes” compared with the cost of a “no.” To increase the odds of the “yes” sought by the P5+1, the value to Tehran of the desired agreement should be boosted while an Iranian “no” should prove much more painful to the regime.

Negotiation 101 suggests that, with stronger positive and negative incentives in place, skillful diplomacy has the best chance of making the right deal. Yet, the U.S. team could do better on both the value-enhancing and cost-imposing elements of its negotiation strategy.

Thus far, the Congress has almost exclusively focused on inflicting greater pain if Iran fails to agree to suitable terms. Primarily this has been through the threat of more severe oil and financial sanctions as proposed in various legislative proposals (e.g., Menendez-Kirk, Boxer-Paul, Corker). The bills differ in some respects and present something of a moving target for analysis. Yet most would trigger tougher “conditional” sanctions if the talks fail to reach an acceptable result sometime after the March 24 deadline for an agreed framework of a final deal or the June 30 limit for agreement on technical details.

In sharp contrast, President Obama has threatened at least three times—most prominently in his January State of the Union message—to veto any new sanctions, even conditional ones, during the ongoing talks. Why? The atmosphere might sour; Iranian hardliners might undercut the negotiators; Iranians might retaliate by walk away, scraping the interim deal limitations, even expanding their nuclear program; the U.S. might be blamed for breaking up the talks; allies might stop cooperating on sanctions; and so on.

So who’s right? Would sharper sanctions be deal enablers or deal killers?

As discussed below, a new approach to tighter sanctions could be an enabler, but more pain in the event of no deal is only one part of Tehran’s equation. A largely neglected aspect of the P5+1 negotiating strategy is boosting the value of a “yes” to the Iranian regime. Under current law, President Obama can at most offer Tehran temporary executive branch waivers on some sanctions. Such waivers could easily be revoked, especially by a future president. This limitation greatly reduces Tehran’s incentives to make the kind of irreversible cuts in its nuclear program sought by the P5+1.

To sharpen the stick and sweeten the carrot in the interest of getting an acceptable nuclear deal, two complementary moves should be made. The administration should shift its oppositional approach to the Republican Congress on the issue of sanctions. The Congress should reciprocate by promptly working with the administration on a two-part package of sticks and carrots to strengthen the U.S. hand in the nuclear talks. To put it mildly, these moves would be politically challenging in today’s adversarial climate. Yet together, these actions should advance the national interest.

The first part of these executive-legislative negotiations should result in Congress being ready to pass a tough pre-negotiated sanctions bill and a very public presidential commitment to sign this specific bill by a clear deadline, such as July 7, if a satisfactory deal with Iran is not then in place.

For maximum effectiveness, the administration should simultaneously embark on parallel negotiations to bring as many of the P5+1 on board with these tougher sanctions in the event of negotiations unravel. As Gary Samore notes, this means putting U.S. and allied pressure on Iran’s major oil customers—such as Japan, Korea, and India—to cut their purchases of Iranian oil in the event that new sanctions are triggered. It also means persuading oil producers like Saudi Arabia and the Emirates to produce at sufficient levels to fill the gap.

As the second, linked part of an agreement on a harsher no-deal outcome, the president should obtain Congressional authority to permanently lift key sanctions on a phased basis if an Iranian nuclear deal meets certain tough criteria, and if Tehran scrupulously adheres to its commitments. This new authority should be part of the same bill as the sharpened sanctions. The two-part package should be readied for passage and signature by a realistic deadline, such as July 7, for the talks to have concluded.

If successful in this supremely tricky quest, President Obama would have a much more potent diplomatic arsenal to achieve the results with Iran desired not only by the administration, the Congress, and the P5+1, but also by the Israelis, Saudis, and other stakeholders.