NTI Seminar: Sanctions Expert Richard Nephew on President Trump's Approach to Iran

This post was written by Mary Fulham, an intern on NTI’s Global Nuclear Policy and Programs team who is a recent graduate of The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs with a major in Middle East Studies.

In the wake of the United States' unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement and re-imposition of sanctions on Iran, sanctions expert Richard Nephew, a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, headlined the second in NTI’s new seminar series by addressing the question on everyone’s minds: will President Trump’s approach work?

The Bush/Obama approach

To add context and better assess the impact of this decision, Nephew highlighted three factors that helped make the 2006-2013 round of sanctions on Iran particularly effective.

1) The context of Iraq: President Bush had shown the world he was willing to use force to prevent the acquisition of WMDs by the Iraqi government, so a similar operation in Iran seemed entirely plausible. European and Iranian leaders strongly opposed a U.S. invasion of Iran, so the credible threat of force motivated them to come to the negotiating table and work towards a diplomatic solution.

2) Validation from an international organization: U.S. concerns about Iran’s nuclear program were legitimized by reports from the IAEA that showed consistent growth in the number of Iranian centrifuges and quantity of enriched uranium.

“People trusted those IAEA reports a heck of a lot more than they trusted U.S. intelligence assessments,” Nephew said.

These reports gave the U.S. the leverage it needed to bring the issue to the U.N. Security Council and the legal foundation necessary to convince other countries to join the push for sanctions, as a matter of upholding international law.

3) The dual-track approach: The Bush administration’s offer to engage and negotiate with Iran was as credible as the threat of sanctions, and they sent a clear message with this dual-track approach: “This was not just simply about sanctioning the Iranians, this was also about offering them a way out,” he said.

President Obama’s “hyper-charged” commitment to the dual-track strategy made the Iranians take him more seriously. The Obama administration “didn’t just use sanctions as a means to an end … [they] used it to reinforce and strengthen engagement, and [they] used engagement to reinforce and strengthen sanctions.”

The current approach

The administration has taken an entirely different approach, and Nephew is not optimistic.

1) Dwindling motivation to work with the United States: The Trump administration has been working with European partners to find ways to amend the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to satisfy the conditions that the president outlined in a January 2018 speech for staying in the deal. However, Nephew said “there is widespread skepticism, particularly in Europe but also elsewhere … that the U.S. is actually committed to the negotiations” and genuinely interested in forging a new deal. This skepticism stems from the failure of negotiations to date, the administration’s refusal to compromise, and the appointment of staunchly anti-JCPOA people in senior positions.

“Some in the NGO/think tank community argue that Europeans and other governments will go along with what [President Trump] demand[s] eventually,” Nephew said. But for this to happen, Iran would have to restart its nuclear program, which seems unlikely.

2) IAEA reports indicate Iranian compliance: “[The Iranians] are going to thrive on IAEA reports coming out … saying Iran is complying with its obligations,” he said The Iranians realize that restarting their nuclear program would play directly into Trump’s hand.

The United States’ position will be undermined by IAEA reports showing Iranian compliance with the terms of the JCPOA. The IAEA reports gave presidents Bush and Obama critical support from the international community—and the Iranians recognize that it is in their interest to keep it this way.

3) Transition to a single-track approach: The Trump administration’s exclusive focus on sanctions seems to have broken with the dual-track approach of previous administrations. President Trump’s antipathy toward negotiations with Iran has alienated potential partners in Europe, Russia, China, Turkey, and India and damaged his ability to amass international support for the new sanctions.

Some companies already have withdrawn from Iran to comply with the pending sanctions, but Nephew emphasized that leaving the decision to companies, instead of enforcing legal obligations, creates the opportunity for loopholes and sanctions evasion schemes.

In the long-term, the president’s preference for sanctions could sideline the U.S. in the global economy; international business is less likely to come to the U.S. if companies expect to have to protect their global assets from more sanctions. Furthermore, secondary sanctions which prevent foreign companies from doing business in Iran and the U.S., are designed to hurt those companies but also deprive the U.S. economy of their investment and business.

Where does that leave us?

For now, the U.S. is stuck in the “muddled middle,” Nephew said. U.S. sanctions will not be as effective as the 2006-2013 sanctions package unless the administration rallies more international support, but he has shown no interest in doing so. Meanwhile, the Iranians will likely restart some components of their nuclear program without altering their breakout time.

“The muddled middle is actually the best that we can hope for until such a point in time when the future U.S. administration could have the kind of credibility necessary to reenter negotiations with international partners,” he said.

June 5, 2018

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Richard Johnson is NTI's Senior Director for Fuel Cycle and Verification. A State Department veteran with extensive experience on Iran and North Korea nuclear issues, Johnson also served as former director of nonproliferation at the White House National Security Council.