Editorial: Rogues Rampant
Feb 28, 2022 | Colin Rubenstein
The Russian invasion of Ukraine, literally trampling over that country’s sovereignty, is the latest assault on the rules-based system that is the bedrock of global security and stability. The imposition of crippling sanctions on Russia is a crucial first step in bringing sufficient international diplomatic pressure to bear upon Russia to withdraw. However, imposing sanctions alone is not enough. Long-term resolve, determination and enhancing the credibility of Western deterrence will be required, at a minimum, to improve prospects of reaching any tolerable outcome, however tense, risky and costly the likely extended standoff will be for all parties involved.
What goes for Russian sanctions vis-à-vis Ukraine is equally true for sanctions on Iran over its illegal nuclear weapons program, as well as its state sponsorship of global and regional terror. Yet paradoxically, at the same moment US Biden Administration officials are scrambling to put in place sanctions to smother the flames of war in the throes of consuming all of Ukraine, the White House appears to be finalising a virtually pointless, short-term deal to remove sanctions and pave the way to a nuclear armed Iran. This is the equivalent of attempting to extinguish one fire, even while pouring petrol on another, and snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
Before negotiations began over Iranian nuclear violations, US President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken sensibly stressed the need for a “longer and stronger” nuclear deal. In doing so, they recognised the many loopholes that needed to be closed in the deeply flawed original 2015 nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – perhaps most urgently its sunset clauses, which are set to begin taking effect in 2025. They recognised that a short-term deal simply returning to the JCPOA, limiting Iran’s nuclear enrichment for a few short years, can’t possibly stop Iran’s march to a nuclear weapon – and at best, only briefly delay it. And in doing so, they implicitly acknowledged that former President Donald Trump withdrew from a highly flawed deal in 2018.
While details of the reportedly impending deal with Iran had not been released at press time, judging from insider accounts, it definitely isn’t stronger and longer than the JCPOA, but instead “bleaker and weaker”. Worse, it appears to leave the US and its allies with almost no leverage to force Iran to return to the table to negotiate the better deal that Biden and Blinken acknowledge is sorely needed.
Even veteran members of Biden’s own party are starting to question whether the Administration’s increasingly one-eyed policy on Iran can work. “A year [into nuclear talks with Iran], I have yet to hear any parameters of ‘longer’ or ‘stronger’ terms or whether that is even a feasible prospect,” US Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez said on Feb. 1. “At this point, we seriously have to ask what exactly are we trying to salvage?”
Sadly, the writing has been on the wall for some time and Iran appears to know it. Over the past year, the regime not only accelerated its violations of the JCPOA, it limited and blocked inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), thus preventing the world from knowing the details of Iran’s activities with any confidence. And yet, to protect the talks, the US and its European allies still repeatedly refused to let the IAEA Board of Governors pass a resolution condemning Iran’s obstruction of inspectors.
Meanwhile, the Biden Administration has also turned a blind eye to massive Iranian black market oil sales to China in violation of Washington’s own sanctions.
Yet all the while, Iran has refused to even meet US negotiators face to face.
From every indication, the new deal will be weaker than the JCPOA, rewarding Iran for its violations of the original agreement by, for example, allowing it to retain the advanced centrifuges it built illegally, instead of destroying them. And of course, even in a best-case scenario, the deal will absurdly begin to phase out just months after it is fully phased in, thanks to the original JCPOA’s sunset clauses.
As Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett rightly observed, “two things have happened since the original signing: The Iranians have made great strides in building their enrichment capability and time has passed.”
Under a return to a watered-down JCPOA, Iran will be able to take full advantage of both of these realities.
What’s more, sanctions relief and the release of frozen funds will flood Iran’s coffers with tens of billions of dollars, enabling Iran to ramp up the activities of terror proxies such as Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Houthis. Moreover, any future reimposition of sanctions through the JCPOA’s snapback provisions would be extremely unlikely, since the snapback option is set to expire in 2025.
And yet Teheran is pressing for even more: It reportedly wants existing investigations by the IAEA into clandestine Iranian nuclear activity closed; it wants non-nuclear sanctions to be removed, such as those on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps; and it wants the Biden Administration to come up with ways to make it difficult, if not impossible, for a future US president to reimpose sanctions. These are outrageous red lines that, like Putin’s non-starter demands over Ukraine, should never be up for discussion. But here we are.
Russia’s actions in Ukraine are indeed arguably the most serious international crisis since the Cold War, and the world will suffer greatly if they are not addressed, at the very least, with determination, strategic wisdom, fortitude – plus real efforts to strengthen the military capabilities and the credibility of US-led Western deterrence. However, much the same can be said about the Iran nuclear file. Abandoning efforts to contain the Iranian threat while focussing only on Ukraine and China’s aggression would not only be a gross strategic error, but one also likely to counterproductively undermine efforts to shore up the rules-based international order by effectively confronting Russia’s naked aggression, as well as China’s wolf warrior activities.