WASHINGTON — Calls to ease sanctions on Iran to spur global negotiations over its nuclear program will backfire, making a deal far less likely and greatly raising the risk of an Israeli military strike to cripple the program.
To its proponents, sanctions-easing is a necessary confidence-boosting measure to assure Iran that the United States and the other “P5+1” negotiators — Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — want a deal.
But, it was the ever-tighter global, U.S. and European sanctions of recent months on Iran’s energy and financial sectors — not global concessions — that forced Tehran to the table. And it’s the still-tighter sanctions on the horizon — especially the July 1 start of Europe’s embargo on Iranian oil — that will keep it there.
That’s because Iran’s economy is suffering, stoking greater domestic anger at a regime that’s already widely despised across the Islamic Republic. Tehran will only strike a deal if it faces the prospect that greater economic disarray will generate the requisite anger that would threaten the regime’s grip on power.
Currently, Iran is having trouble selling its oil and its banks are increasingly shut out of the global financial system. Iran’s economy is barely growing, its currency is sinking, and inflation is soaring. Looking ahead, the oil embargo and ongoing efforts to further isolate its financial sector will make Iran’s economic troubles even worse.
In fact, sanctions are now more important than ever because — after many years in which the West offered Tehran a host of economic and other inducements to abandon its nuclear pursuit — sanctions are the world’s lone remaining non-military tool to prevent the regime from developing the technology and know-how for nuclear weaponry.
But, time’s running short.
For one thing, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported recently that Iran is progressing further in enriching uranium at its once-secret underground Fordow facility near Qom, with more centrifuges at work and with traces of more highly enriched uranium. The higher the purity, the closer the regime comes to weapons-grade material.
For another, the P5+1 are pursuing a negotiating path that plays into Tehran’s finely-honed skills at drawn-out negotiations through which it can play for time, promise but not deliver, and make more nuclear progress.
The United States and its allies had called for early tangible progress, warning that they would not talk merely to talk.
Nevertheless, the P5+1 met with Iranian negotiators in Istanbul on April 14 and Baghdad on May 23 and, after making no progress, have agreed to do so again in Moscow on June 17.
That’s what happened about a decade ago when the EU-3 — Britain, France, and Germany — began three years of fruitless talks, and that’s what has happened in more recent years through many iterations of P5+1 talks. Iran’s diplomats talked, teased, and played for time; its scientists made progress; and its leaders bragged about the progress and suggested that its program was unstoppable.
By easing sanctions now, the P5+1 will not coax Tehran into the steps that will signal a real desire for deal-making: stopping production of 20 percent enriched uranium, shipping all stockpiles of such uranium out of the country, closing Fordow and allowing unfettered international access to all nuclear sites.
Instead, easing the sanctions will sacrifice the world’s last chance to force a deal by creating more economic tumult within Iran.
It also will try the patience of Jerusalem, which faces renewed annihilationist threats of late by Iranian leaders.
However skeptical, Israeli leaders will give the latest P5+1 talks some time. But, they won’t wait forever as Tehran plays its usual cat-and-mouse game, bringing nuclear weaponry and Israel’s vulnerability that much closer.
Tehran doesn’t want a deal. The question is whether the world can force one. Sanctions-easing will make it far less likely.
• Haas, a senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the American Foreign Policy Council.