In an appearance on NPR, sanctions guru Mark Dubowitz explained that the mechanism in the Iran deal designed to stop Iran from cheating — the “snapback” — actually provides cover for Iran to cheat. The report went like this:
MARK DUBOWITZ: Iran actually has its own snapback. It has a nuclear snapback.
MICHELE KELEMEN: That’s Mark Dubowitz, a sanctions expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which has been campaigning against what it calls a flawed deal. The text states clearly that if sanctions are reinstated in whole or in part, Iran would treat that as grounds to stop performing its commitments in whole or in part. And Dubowitz thinks this will make the U.S. and Europe hesitate before bringing any concerns to the Security Council.
DUBOWITZ: The only thing you’ll take to the Security Council are massive Iranian violations because you’re certainly not going to risk the Iranians walking away from the deal and engaging in nuclear escalation over smaller violations. . . . And it will be very difficult to convince European companies to leave Iran again. It took decades to convince the Europeans to leave the first time. And that was in a context where Iran was under multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions and was considered an international pariah. In five, 10, 15 years, circumstances may change significantly, and we may never be able to get the Europeans back out of Iran.
Several important considerations flow from this.
First, if there is any chance to get a better deal, it is essential to try to do so rather than have Congress ratify a deal that makes matters worse — that is, gives Iran a pass on midlevel cheating, puts us at odds with our major allies and destroys a sanctions mechanism that brought Iran to the table. If we let it go through, we will have fewer options and greater risk when Iran inevitably moves toward a nuclear weapon.
Second, if the deal goes through and there is a new president who is committed to undoing the damage, it will be far better to present evidence of Iran’s violations, corral allies to agree to snapback sanctions and freeze new business (unfortunately, the deal grandfathers existing deals, so there will be endless fights over whether, for example, a new order of materials for a project begun previously is grandfathered). That likely will require going through the laborious process sketched out in the agreement. It will be very difficult to take the position that we are going to, for example, sanction banks of close allies if they don’t abide by snapped-back sanctions.
Third, it could well be too late and too difficult to deploy sanctions. We then face the prospect of either a nuclear Iran or military action. But what military action? It depends on whether Iran has a bomb, which parts of the Middle East the regime and its proxies have overtaken, and what our Gulf and Israeli allies have to say. Ideally, we would want to act in concert with other powers. But do we even have a plan for acting? Goodness knows if the Obama administration ever came up with a viable military plan or if it did, whether it will have to be updated. The Pentagon and the National Security Council will participate in that process. But wait. What military forces are we going to use? President Obama has been slashing away at defense, reducing readiness and removing the bipartisan commitment to maintain a military that can fight two wars. To make matters worse, Iran is a state supporter of terrorism around the globe (recall the plot to kill a Saudi official in the United States), so assessing our exposure to a potential terror plot — with a hamstrung National Security Agency — will be essential.
Fourth, we are going to face an Iran that is financially and militarily stronger in 2017 than it is now. This is one reason the administration’s argument that we can always act later if Iran cheats is fundamentally wrong. We would be able to act, but why confront Iran when it is stronger rather than now, when it is weaker? Obama is intent on letting Iran become a regional power. With its forces and proxies deployed far and wide, a military campaign against a rising power becomes that much more challenging.
The complications that arise from this deal are not accidental, of which the boobytrapped snapback mechanism is only one. (Bret Stephens observes: “Iranian violations of the deal, especially if they are technical and incremental, will be tolerated for the sake of preserving the deal. Violations will be treated as differences of interpretation as to what the deal requires, or as arcane disputes over technical issues, or as responses to some Western provocation. Pretexts will be contrived to revise the deal to suit new and more expansive Iranian demands.”) The administration worked strenuously to deprive Obama’s successors of the tools and opportunity to reverse his handiwork. A very skilled president with a competent team will have his or her hands full, but why dump this mess into the 45th president’s lap? The deal, if stopped in Congress, can be reworked and additional pressure applied. If Obama does not think he can get a better deal, perhaps the next president will be able to figure it out.