Had anyone believed President Barack Obama’s mantra that “all options are on the table” to deal with Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the Vienna agreement might have emerged less advantageously for Tehran. But no one took Obama’s threat of military force seriously – a credibility gap that Israel still fears and Iran still exploits. Even so, Vice President Joe Biden is still trying to reassure nervous Democrats in Congress that the Vienna agreement does not preclude America’s use of force.
Despite its blasé confidence in the agreement, however, the Obama administration understands the near-certainty that Iran will break its word. Tehran’s potential violations were not merely one of many difficult issues for negotiators; they were the essence of the talks. The deal’s entire structure turns on the issue of how to detect and handle breaches.
If Iran is caught transgressing, Obama’s plan is not to use force, but to apply “snapback sanctions.” His administration has argued repeatedly that such sanctions will deter or punish violations, keeping the deal on track and Iran clear of nuclear weapons. This rationale conforms to the underlying logic that if sanctions brought Iran to the table, then sanctions will keep the deal viable once implementation begins.
Unfortunately, the mechanism to address violations is as flawed as the deal’s underlying logic. For the president’s predictions of Iranian behavior to come true (and they are central to successful implementation), Tehran must recognize the inevitability of the pain its country will suffer for straying from compliance.
Even under ideal circumstances, the Vienna deal’s arduous “dispute resolution mechanism” provides so many opportunities for Tehran to obfuscate that “snapback” will soon become a slogan of derision. Alleged violations are referred first to a “joint commission,” which may refer the matter to their foreign ministers. In addition, the parties may ask an outside “advisory board” to consider the issue. The board’s nonbinding ruling goes back to the commission for consideration.
Although each stage has prescribed time limits, these can be “extended by consensus” – a United Nations-style formula for endless palavering before, finally, an aggrieved party convokes the Security Council to vote on snapping back the sanctions. But it’s hard to “snap back” when you’re trapped in a diplomatic La Brea Tar Pit. As with the deal’s dispute process, the snapback mechanism will not so much resolve disagreements as prolong them indefinitely.
By concocting a procedure that elides the Russian or Chinese vetoes, Obama has surreptitiously accomplished a prized objective of the international left, which always disapproved on principle of the veto power. Through 70 years of U.N. history, one lodestar emerges clearly: Washington’s only immutable protection has been its Security Council veto. Obama’s end-run around the veto poses long-term risks that far outweigh whatever short-term gain is to be had from boxing in Russia and China now.
Dean Acheson, Truman’s secretary of state, made a comparable mistake in his “Uniting for Peace” strategy, trying to overcome Soviet vetoes during the Korean War by empowering the General Assembly. Acheson rejected British fears that the tactic might backfire; as he later wrote, “present difficulties outweighed possible future ones, and we pressed on.” We should not repeat the error.
Unfortunately, snapback sanctions are just as likely to be empty political rhetoric as Obama’s incantations about all options being on the table. The list of reasons to oppose the Vienna deal is already long, but the pitfalls of snapback sanctions surely rank near the top.
The New York Times
John R. Bolton, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from August 2005 to December 2006.