Iran: Sanctions and the Nuclear Deal


On February 21, the Center for the National Interest hosted a discussion covered by C-SPAN titled “Iran: Sanctions and the Nuclear Deal” with Ambassador Dennis Ross, a prominent diplomat who has worked for five presidential administrations, and Mark Fitzpatrick, the Executive Director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and head of the IISS Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Policy Program. Geoffrey Kemp, the Center’s Senior Director of Regional Security Programs, moderated. The event was covered live by C-SPAN. Please find a summary of the event below.

Iran: Sanctions and the Nuclear Deal

Two former diplomats from the Reagan and Obama administrations agreed that the Trump administration should take extra steps to ensure that Iran not only upholds all the requirements of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the formal name for the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, but also for any illicit actions undertaken in the Middle East that run contrary to U.S. interests. Ambassador Dennis Ross and Mark Fitzpatrick also argued that the U.S. needs to communicate and coordinate policy beyond that which was stated in the JCPOA with the P5+1 (permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany) and regional allies in order to prevent Iran from resuming its nuclear program after the agreement expires.

Ambassador Ross stated that while President Donald Trump has described the Iran Deal as the “worst deal ever,” the plan is not a bilateral one because it includes the other P5+1 members. As a result, he argues, a U.S. withdrawal would isolate America from its allies in the P5+1 and “make us the problem.” Instead, the U.S. should focus its policy in the region on bolstering deterrence and keeping the focus on Iran’s conduct. To that end, Ross argued, the U.S. and its allies should have visible and effective consequences for Iran when it runs afoul of the JCPOA and be unafraid to designate new sanctions if the situation demands it, saying, “where Iranian action calls for more, we should do more.” Ross also suggested that the U.S. consider giving the Massive Ordinance Penetrator (MOP) “bunker buster” bomb and leasing B-2 bombers to the Israeli government so that Israel would have the capability to attack underground nuclear sites if needed.

Fitzpatrick, a noted expert on nuclear proliferation issues in the Middle East, Northeast Asia, and South Asia, agreed that the U.S. should be willing to sanction Iran for actions outside the nuclear agreement where justified, but cautioned that sanctions are not the only tool the U.S. can use to influence Tehran’s behavior. Citing some of the resolutions proposed by the U.S. House of Representatives, Fitzpatrick argued that some sanctions are simply attempts to goad Iran into violating the terms of the JCPOA, something Iran is loath to be seen doing. The current international narrative, said Fitzpatrick, is that the Trump administration, rather than Iran, is the “unreasonable actor” and that it is more likely to be the cause of the agreement unravelling. According to Fitzpatrick, claims that U.S. sanctions have had a “chilling effect” on the Iranian economy and recent actions such as the visa ban and the proposal to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization serve only to reinforce this narrative.

The panelists also highlighted the importance of Iran’s actions and potential U.S. responses in a regional context. According to Ross, the Iranians argue that the nuclear deal does not prevent them from pursuing their own interests in the greater region. He stated that the U.S. should be able to “respond in kind” and increase the costs on Iran when it uses Shia militias to weaken other states or empowers the IRGC’s Qods Force. The reason the Obama administration held back on these types of actions, Ross argued, was out of fear that such strong responses would play into the hands of hardliners within the Iranian political elite and weaken President Hassan Rouhani, who faces an election this year. These fears, said Ross, were largely unfounded, as Rouhani was not predicted to win his election in 2013 but did anyway. In fact, Ross stated, the U.S. should be “humble” about the direct impact its actions have on the elections of other countries.

Fitzpatrick cautioned that while there may not be much the U.S. could do to help Rouhani’s chances against Iran’s hardliners in the upcoming election, “there’s a lot we could do to hurt him.” Were the Trump administration to designate the IRGC as a terrorist organization, Fitzpatrick warned, it would provoke an emotional response from the Iranian people. Moreover, he continued, because of the IRGC’s involvement in the Syrian civil war, any political settlement would have to involve them. An official designation as a terrorist group would severely complicate that effort. Instead, the U.S. should focus on Iran’s use of Hezbollah in Syria. Ross suggested that Hezbollah’s direct role in combat in Syria has reduced its credibility as an independent actor and reaffirmed the subordination of its own interests to Iran’s foreign policy goals.

Both speakers stressed the importance of establishing priorities with regards to Iran and urged that policymakers consider preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons as a top priority. Also, the U.S. and its allies must plan in advance for when sanctions are terminated in the eighth year, advanced centrifuge installation is allowed in the tenth year, and when all JCPOA restrictions are lifted on Iran in the fifteenth year, they said. It is paramount, Mr. Ross urged, that the U.S. “condition” Iran into understanding that  pursuing nuclear weapons is a futile strategy and that doing so will incur substantial costs.