ASG Chair Samuel R. Berger writes op-ed, "The Fantasy of a Better Iran Deal," for POLITICO's "In the Arena"

The Fantasy of a Better Iran Deal
The critics are dreaming. Tougher sanctions would only isolate Washington, not pressure Tehran.
April 05, 2015

Some are insisting on a “better deal” than the framework nuclear agreement reached with Iran on April 2. But the idea of a better deal is a chimera, an illusory option, and it should not lull us into thinking there is another agreement to be had if only we were to bear down harder. The present agreement, which depends on important pieces to be resolved by the end of June, can substantially reduce the ability of Iran to develop a nuclear weapon over the next ten years or more and also creates a dynamic that could be a game changer in the combustible Middle East.

Senator Mark Kirk has postponed a vote on the Iran sanctions bill he wrote with Senator Robert Menendez, possibly until June 30. This is a constructive step, avoiding an action that would undercut negotiations toward a final agreement. But we need to keep the sanctions issue in mind because it is inextricably intertwined with the same calls for a better deal emanating from people in Congress, Israel, and other critics. No one can argue that a better agreement wouldn’t be better—3,000 Iranian centrifuges is better that 5,000; a 20-year deal is better than 10. The tough question is: How do you get there? Putting aside what the Iranians might do in response to additional pressure—dig in deeper, speed up their program–and looking just at our side of the equation, the notion of a better deal is unachievable.

Here is why. According to critics, seeking a better deal starts with increasing sanctions on Iran. If tough sanctions brought them to the table, tougher sanctions will bring them to their knees. At some point their economy will be in tatters from the intensified sanctions, and they will be forced to return to the bargaining table and agree to better deal. With a closer look, however, this scenario unravels.

First, it is highly unlikely that even our allies in Europe would join us in further sanctions against Iran in the wake of a nuclear agreement they believe is sensible and positive. That is even truer for other countries—like India, Japan, South Korea and China—that were pulled into the existing sanctions regime quite unwillingly. The support of these countries for the oil sanctions in particular has been critical to the sanctions’ effectiveness. They will not willingly sign up for more.

Second, if a deal falls through, it is likely that the existing multilateral sanctions regime will begin to crumble. As noted, countries like India and South Korea, who don’t feel threatened by an Iran nuclear weapon, will be only too happy to find a pretext to break out of the sanctions—perhaps tentatively at first but in a rush as others do. It will be hard to argue the rationale for sanctions, which, from the perspective of nearly every nation, will have achieved their purpose—bringing Iran to the table to negotiate serious limitations on its nuclear program.

Indeed, the proponents of tougher sanctions to get a “better” deal have misunderstood the nature of the Iranian sanctions. The fact is that the United States does not own or control the multilateral sanctions regime. The effectiveness of the sanctions is based on how the international community views the perceived threat and therefore the legitimacy of coercive actions to stop it.

Third, those who seek a better deal through tougher sanctions argue that we don’t necessarily need international support. The United States could unilaterally enact sanctions that have extraterritorial reach, as we already have done with a number of Congressional measures since 2010. The proposition is that we will to some degree deny foreign companies access to the larger, more important American market, if they choose to do business with Iran.

However, the context has entirely changed since the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions Act was passed in 2010. New extraterritorial sanctions would be directed against an Iran that has reached an agreement on its nuclear program with major world powers. The rest of the world generally detests our assertion of authority involving foreign companies in foreign countries. Here, for example, we would seek to close the U.S. market to Germany’s BMW if they sold cars to Iran or Japan’s Sony if it sold in Iran. If Congress imposed sanctions in spite of a nuclear agreement reached with Iran by major powers, the international community—except for a few countries—would believe those sanctions to be illegitimate. In this context, it is hard to imagine the U.S. government moving ahead with major sanctions proceedings against many of our friends and allies.

So, as we discuss and debate the merits of this framework agreement, and a final agreement that may follow, let’s recognize that this is the agreement we will have—not some imagined alternative. In my judgment, if the next stage of negotiations succeeds, the framework that emerged this week lays the groundwork for a strong and effective agreement.

The framework does not—nor by itself is it likely to—fundamentally alter the other threats Iran poses in the region, including its ongoing efforts to exert control in Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad and Sanaa, and its continuing threat to Israel. That is why it is important to embed this agreement in a regional strategy that bolsters concrete cooperation with our friends in the region and reassures them that we are there for the long haul. President Obama’s summit with regional partners at Camp David will be an important opportunity to look not only at the hot spots, but at the bigger picture.

The Iran nuclear agreement is important not despite other troubles in the region but because of them. Each challenge would be more difficult and dangerous if Iran’s nuclear program was unconstrained and unmonitored, let alone if Iran were to develop a nuclear weapon and spark others in the region to follow. Under the agreement that is emerging, we will have a high degree of confidence—as will others in the region—that Iran’s nuclear program is seriously constrained. Walling off the nuclear threat does not extinguish the fires that are burning in the region. But it does remove what would be the most combustible fuel.

There is no second bite at this apple. This is a good deal. We should not be distracted by talk of a better one.

Enacting new, tough sanctions in an effort to force Iran toward a “better” deal would mystify and alarm the rest of the world, isolating and weakening us. Such sanctions would crumble under their own weight —amounting to, as Shakespeare said, “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Samuel R. Berger was national security adviser to President Bill Clinton from 1997-2001; he is currently chair of Albright Stonebridge Group.

Please see the full article online at: