Too clever by half

Mark Dubowitz, an opponent of the Iran nuclear deal, outlined the strategy he is advocating on NPR this morning:

This trial balloon amounts to decertifying Iranian compliance but not re-imposing sanctions connected to the Iranian nuclear program while ratcheting up other sanctions and seeking a renegotiation of the deal. What could go wrong?

First, there is simply no basis on which to decertify Iranian compliance. The basis Dubowitz cites is moot, as the US has not actually presented any evidence that an inspection of Iranian military facilities is warranted. The Iranians have said they won’t allow it, but the burden of initiating the process is on Washington, not Tehran. The International Atomic Energy Agency has otherwise confirmed Iranian implementation of the deal.

Second, decertifying will trigger a reaction in other capitals, even if nuclear sanctions are not reimposed. The Europeans, who have to be brought on board if new, non-nuclear sanctions are to create any pressure on Iran, oppose their American ally undermining an agreement they helped negotiate. Tehran will try to convince the Europeans not to join the US in ratcheting up non-nuclear sanctions, which from their point of view are just like nuclear sanctions. The North Koreans will be watching closely and conclude that no agreement with the US on nuclear questions is reliable, so they should go hell-bent for more nuclear weapons.

Third, re-negotiation requires that we not only demand something but also give something. The only serious objection to the Iran nuclear deal I’ve heard so far is that aspects of it expire (sunset is the term of art). Opponents of the nuclear deal are right when they argue that a follow-on agreement is needed.

But what Dubowitz is proposing a bad way, destined to fail, of opening that issue. The way to open a negotiation on extension of the deal is to acknowledge Iranian compliance and get the Europeans on board for preliminary discussions of what we want to see extended and what we and they are prepared to do to make that appealing to the Iranians (either with carrots or sticks). Only after that discussion with allies would we then proceed to discussion with the Iranians, likely several years from now.

Trump and his Administration are proven bad negotiators. I can’t think of a single success in this department so far, either domestically or internationally. Their consistent mistake is to consider only their own alternatives to a negotiated agreement. Negotiating well requires that you consider also your adversary’s alternatives. The Iranians will be delighted if US decertification splits off the Europeans, who have benefited significantly from lifting sanctions, from the Americans and effectively prevents an extension of the nuclear deal.

Decertification without reneging on the Iran nuclear deal is too clever by half. The Administration should not do it.

PS: This idea has gotten worse during the day: reports are that Trump will simply declare the agreement not in the national interest, dispensing with the need to show the Iranians have violated it. This is a spectacularly counterfactual idea: without the agreement, Iran could have nuclear weapons by now, so it is clearly in the US interest and will remain so as long as it is in force.

 

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