Bolt to the Future

I don’t often agree with John Bolton, but he is asking some of the right questions on the Iran deal.

W’s ambassador to the UN has a column in today’s NYT. In it, he shakes his bellicose fist at the Obama administration’s most significant diplomatic accomplishment. He chastises them for not credibly keeping the option of war on the table, as he has in past columns where he urged bombing of Iran.

Setting aside these reckless recommendations from a man who never saw wartime action, his latest column poses systemic issues worth considering.

First, setting aside war, what is to keep Iran from violating the agreement? The re-imposition (snapback) of the sanctions that effectively brought Iran to the negotiating table. But there are reasons to think this won’t work as planned:

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 their country will suffer for straying from compliance.

Yet the very language of the Vienna deal demonstrates the opposite. In two provisions (Paragraphs 26 and 37), Iran rejects the legitimacy of sanctions coming back into force. These passages expressly provide, in near identical words, that “Iran has stated that if sanctions are reinstated in whole or in part, Iran will treat that as grounds to cease performing its commitments under this JCPOA” — Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — “in whole or in part.”

Thus the inexorable pattern will not be: Iran violates the deal; sanctions snap back; Iran resumes compliance. Quite the reverse. The far more likely future is: Iran violates the deal; sanctions snap back; Iran tells us, using a diplomatic term of art, to take our deal and stuff it.

Abrogating the deal, of course, would come only after Iran had reaped the economic benefits of having its assets unfrozen and the sanctions ended. The Europeans (among others) will have been suckered back into economic relationships that will cause as much pain to them as to Iran if they are abandoned. Sadly, the ayatollahs know the Europeans better than Mr. Obama does.

This last point is worth emphasizing. The sanction regime against Iran was painstakingly constructed over many years. The US succeeded in getting allies to respect it, in part through tough penalties for any multinational company also doing business in the US. Iran’s economy was deep in the doldrums as a result of this regime. Once sanctions become dismantled, and European companies (and others) rush in, they will become lobbyists against re-imposition of tough sanctions. And, if Bolton’s predictions are true, it won’t matter much anyway – if Iran has already gotten what it wants.

Without war, sanctions are the stick the administration would have to wield. If you share Bolton’s assumption that Obama (or future administrations) will not use force under any circumstances, then you should be worried about this. I think he is wrong on this. I instead worry that future sanction ineffectiveness will make war more inevitable.

Bolton also critiques procedural aspects of the deal, including lengthy “dispute resolution” mechanisms that he likens to a “a diplomatic La Brea Tar Pit”.

And what if Russia and China block re-imposition of sanctions? How Obama addressed this possibility is Bolton’s real worry:

Under the deal and Security Council Resolution 2231, if a JCPOA party asserts that a significant violation has occurred, then the council must vote within 30 days on whether “to continue the sanctions lifting.” Thus, in theory, if Washington alleged a breach, Moscow and Beijing would have the burden of keeping the sanctions lifted, rather than Washington having the burden of reinstituting them. Absent a resolution “to continue the sanctions lifting,” sanctions snap back.

By concocting a procedure that elides the Russian or Chinese vetoes, Mr. Obama has surreptitiously accomplished a prized objective of the international left, which always disapproved on principle of the veto power. Through 70 years of United Nations history, one lodestar emerges clearly: Washington’s only immutable protection has been its Security Council veto. Mr. 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.

What Bolton calls a “dangerous precedent” will be celebrated by many in developing countries, who have long seen the US veto at the UN as locking in various “Washington consensuses” over the years.

But he is right to raise our eyes above the short-term diplomatic quandary at hand. More focus on long-term governance might have avoided the current Greek crisis, and the backlash against international economic regimes.

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