Joshua PollackIran Sanctions: Now What?

So what does the dog do after it catches the car?

That is, in effect, the question faced by the leaders of the P5+1, now that they’ve managed to overcome their differences, settle on a draft Iran sanctions resolution, and pass it, 12-2, at the UN Security Council.

The text isn’t up on the Security Council website yet, but ISIS has a late draft. It pointedly concludes with the text of the June 14, 2008 cooperation proposal, which “remains on the table.”

By now, the only thing that everyone agrees on is that another round of sanctions won’t convince the Iranians to comply with the demands of the international community. Certainly, the Iranians don’t sound persuaded.

So what now?

Everyone — or President Obama and the French Foreign Ministry, at least — has declared that the door is still open to diplomacy. But the present diplomatic situation looks like an impasse.

We’ll Always Have the Zombie Fuel Swap

Mere hours before the sanctions vote, the Vienna Group — that’s France, Russia, and the United States, for those of you keeping score at home — gave the IAEA their formal response to the Joint Declaration by Iran, Turkey, and Brazil. It did not give a definitive “yes” or a “no,” but rather listed multiple “concerns” with the Iranian-Brazilian-Turkish version of the LEUTRR fuel swap proposal.

(U.S. representatives in New York and Vienna praised the leaders of Brazil and Turkey as well-intentioned and sincere in their search for common ground, but we are apparently meant to recall the saying about the road to Hell.)

The Iranian Foreign Ministry says it will respond after studying the text. So far, at least, Tehran has not followed through on its threats to withdraw from the Joint Declaration after the passage of sanctions, implying that its offer, too, remains on the table.

There’s no want of tables, really. The problem is getting the parties to sit down around the same table at the same time.

Reuters has the text of Iran’s letter transmitting the Joint Declaration to the IAEA, and the text of the Vienna Group’s response to the IAEA.


  1. Andrew

    So now we want to run back to the ZFS?

    Why not pass another round of sanctions first? It would be so much more productive to get AT LEAST 10 sets of sanctions before we even think about sitting down and trying to negotiate. (Never mind the experts who say sanctions barely ever work, we just need even more sanctions to prove them wrong)

  2. FSB

    You say “the only thing that everyone agrees on is that another round of sanctions won’t convince the Iranians to comply with the demands of the international community. “

    Well, 1) it is not the entire international community. and 2) what are the demands? Stop enrichment?

  3. Josh (History)


    At this point, I think the call to negotiate without preconditions could be directed to both sides. The Iranians could stop insisting that the Vienna Group accept the Joint Declaration before they are willing to talk (see the Iranian letter to the IAEA). Or the Vienna Group could just accept the Joint Declaration, subject to the resolution of its declared concerns. They look like legitimate concerns to me. Should that stop anyone from talking?


    True, 12-2 is not 15-0, and the Security Council isn’t the international community, but it represents it in these matters.

    The demands are now inscribed in six resolutions. Go read if you’re curious.

  4. Alan (History)

    Here’s an interesting quote:

    “According to Sadeqh Zibakalam, a University of Tehran professor and a widely quoted political analyst in Iran, Ahmadinejad and many other conservatives are moving closer to the reformist position which favored promoting Iran’s nuclear program while calibrating its speed in such a way as to reduce the costs in terms of international isolation and economic sanctions.”

    This of course predates the Tripartite declaration and sanctions, but the whole piece by Farideh Farhi (who I often think has a very good insight into Iranian political machinations) is quite interesting, and equally worth considering in light of sanctions actually being passed. If there is a consensus along the lines she describes, then sanctions themselves may not necessarily be so derailing.

  5. Irshad (History)

    As Arnold Evans wrote on

    “Here we should also talk about the meaning of “negotiate”. Obama administration officials have adopted a deceptive definition of negotiate that may have mislead you Alan. Formal negotiations require a suspension of enrichment. When the Obama administration says Iran is not willing to negotiate, it means Iran is not willing to suspend enrichment. This is the same thing Bush meant, Obama inherited both the policy and the language from Bush.

    If you read carefully your link from yesterday, the administration offers “dialog and consultations” without preconditions. These dialog and consultations are to be aimed at convincing Iran to suspend enrichment so that “formal negotiations” at that point could begin. Again, this is only different in the most superficial way from the policy under Bush.

    When Obama administration officials complain that Iran is not willing to negotiate, just as they did under Bush, they mean Iran is not willing to suspend enrichment – which is not a secret, except that Obama and Bush administration officials have some interest in obscuring their position on Iranian enrichment.”

    Whats your thoughts on that Josh?

    i tend to agree with AE. Unfortunately, these sanctions will push Iran further away from talking with the P5+1 and will also deepen the rift between the North v South, and enhance South-South cooperation.

  6. hass (History)

    I think you’re missing the point. The sanctions proponents don’t care if the sanctions themselves are ineffective. They see sanctions as simply a stepping stone and part of the pretense of engaging “diplomacy” before the shooting starts in earnest. With every step that Obama takes down the same path of sanctions and coercion of the Bush administration, it is a step away from actually negotiating and engaging with Iran, which suits them fine, and makes it politically harder for Obama to ever turn back.

  7. Azr@el (History)

    Weak sanctions are more harming to interests of the imposing party than to the recipient. And unilateral sanctions of the US-Cuban sort have never resulted in anything besides the isolation of the imposing party. I think the dog chasing the car analogy is apt…yet I think the dog caught the car head on.

  8. Nick (History)

    Obama’s policy engineered by Samore is solely based on the tired demand of halting enrichment, let’s not kid ourselves. Moreover, no US administration can dare to recognize Iran’s enrichment rights; it will be a kiss of death.

    Contrary to experts’ advice to the IC that IRI will drink the poison when the pressure mounts, as Khomeini did during the Iran-Iraq war and agreed to a ceasefire; it is unlikely for IRI to budge on the enrichment activity, not with this sanction and not with the next one.

    There was a good chance that by engaging Iran post JD to find a middle ground, but that was a political suicide for the Democrats, hence, all these declarations by Rice and Clinton that the newest one is the toughest sanction of all, beating Bush’s three previous ones.

  9. Bahram Chubak (History)

    I think there is an emotional element in this that cannot be neglected… yes, it is the issue of trust, and the factors of pride & dignity. The UN resolution will make Iran even more cynical about the intentions of the United States, thus making fruitful negotiations unlikely.

    Sure, Ahmadinejad jumped the gun during negotiations last year by assuming that the rest of Iran’s political elite would agree to the swap deal. Yes, it took eight months for the Iranians to form a consensus. But the important thing is that Iran eventually did signal, in a strong manner, agreement to the swap deal, and there is every reason to believe that if the US were truly interested in the deal and pursued the matter in a serious way, the swap would have worked out to the satisfaction of both parties. (I question the assumption that Iran was unwilling to talk to the US. There are a number of different channels of communication that the two countries have used in the past and continue to use.)

    If the swap deal had been implemented, this would have weakened the hand of the cynics in Iran’s rulings class.

    The fact that the US did not take “yes” for an answer strengthens the hands of the paranoid in Iran’s political elite. Western support for Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, 30 years of sanctions, and 7 years of the threat of bombing have generated a measure of mistrust verging on paranoia among some of Iran’s leaders.

  10. Josh (History)


    Here I would be cautious. It is hard to say whether the “speed” of the Iranian nuclear program, however defined — rate of addition of centrifuges at Natanz, maybe? — is related more to technical or political factors.

    There has definitely been a shift in rhetoric lately, but it’s not the first such shift. And the inflection point at Natanz was actually last November.


    Last year’s talks at Geneva and Vienna show that all members of the P5+1 have been willing to negotiate with Iran about its nuclear program, regardless of its compliance with the Security Council resolutions. I don’t believe that has changed.


    If the Obama administration has even hinted at resorting to force against Iran, I haven’t picked up on it.


    The point of the analogy is that something avidly pursued but seemingly quixotic has been achieved. Now, no one can say what it leads to. There is always a danger that an intently pursued goal will become an end in itself.


    One of the attractions of an incremental process that would start with the LEU-TRR deal is that the sides would not have to agree in advance on the ultimate outcome. It would proceed by steps and go however far it goes.

    Will the Iranians ever agree to forgo enrichment and reprocessing? Probably not. They’ve shown that they are prepared to live with sanctions rather than suspend enrichment even for a day.

    Granted, things can change with time. But I wouldn’t oversell what this process might lead to. Even a limited agreement could be beneficial, though.

    (Incidentally, I think the word “suspend,” in the UNSC resolutions, was chosen carefully. It doesn’t necessarily mean a permanent halt; certainly, that wasn’t its meaning in the context of the Iran-E3 talks. But the Iranians do not seem willing to accept the idea, regardless.)


    I’m certain that Iran and the U.S. do communicate by various means. Just last month, the Iranian ambassador to the UN hosted a dinner with the representatives of the Security Council, for example. But you will notice that the Iranians prefer to negotiate directly with the Brazilians and Turks on nuclear matters lately. When it comes to the Vienna Group, they exchange letters through the IAEA.

    We have never seen the text of the Geneva agreement-in-principle, but it appears that part of the understanding was to have additional rounds of talks on the nuclear question. The U.S. State Department spokesman periodically repeats the U.S. view that such talks should be held; until their latest letter to the IAEA, the Iranian side has been silent on the question, as far as I’ve noticed. I may have missed something, of course.

    Here’s the last section of Iran’s letter, setting out their condition for returning to direct negotiations with the Vienna Group:

    “In return, we expect the Agency, also in accordance with paragraph 6 of this declaration, to notify the Vienna Group (USA, Russia, France and the IAEA) of its content, and consequently inform us of the Group’s positive response. “Such action, according to this declaration, will pave the wave to commence negotiation for elaboration on further details of the exchange leading to conclusion of a written agreement and as well as making proper arrangements between Iran and the Vienna Group. “We look forward to receive Your Excellency’s response in an expedited way.

    (The quote marks may indicate missing paragraph breaks, but this is how it appears on the Reuters website.)

    I’d argue that the Iranians should not demand this condition, but should simply call for the Vienna talks to be reconvened without delay. Equally, the Vienna Group shouldn’t wait; it should signal its “positive response,” with whatever reservations, and call for the talks to be reconvened without delay.

    Neither side really has anything to lose. But like you say, pride and dignity are powerful forces.

    So now we await the Iranian response to the Vienna Group’s letter(s).

  11. oo (History)

    “If the Obama administration has even hinted at resorting to force against Iran, I haven’t picked up on it.”

    And “all options are on the table” means what exactly? Hass is absolutely right, America, using the UNSC as cover, doesn’t care about the sanctions, this is about paving the road to war. We “Southerners” are not deceived, irrespective of the failure of countries like Nigeria, Mexico, etc, to vote against, or abstain.

  12. Bahram Chubak (History)

    Here is the text of the UN security Council resolution:

    Josh (“I’d argue that the Iranians should not demand this condition…”):

    I agree; but I doubt that this was meant as an inflexible precondition.

    “So now we await the Iranian response to the Vienna Group’s letter(s).”

    After the resolution the dynamics have changed significantly. I’ll be surprised if Iran will be in the mood for cooperating. For example, whereas I previously thought Iran would be willing to give up enrichment to 20%, now I suspect it will look at it as leverage against the sanctions.

    It’s in the nature of brinkmanship that the two parties escalate or de-escalate the threats together. You can’t have one side raising pressure and the other side giving concessions.

    In addition to the matter of realpolitik, there is the emotional factor: one side feels, rightly or wrongly, that it’s been subject to double-standards and injustice. The speech of the Iranian delegate, Khazaee, in the Security Council meeting is actually quite representative of the mindset of Iran’s leaders.

    I would be very surprised if there’s any reconciliation in the next three years.


  13. shaheen

    I think that what some commentators may be missing is that there has been an ongoing, continuous effort by the P5+1 (and the IAEA at some point) since 2005, mostly through backchannels, to find ways that would be acceptable to all for resuming formal negotiations. But Iran just does not seem to be interested. (An EU official recently summarized the result of these efforts as: “the more we [the P5+1] engage, the more they radicalize their demands; the more we open the door, the more they close it.) Why is it so difficult to accept the idea that Iran wants a military option and simply does not want to negotiate it?

  14. Josh (History)

    David Sanger at the NY Times has a look into the Obama Administration’s current thinking on the “what next” question, and where exactly force enters into it. (Hint: it doesn’t, not yet.)

  15. Arnold Evans (History)


    Let’s assume Iran is not willing to stop enriching and not willing to limit its uranium stockpile to less than one ton.

    Given that, 1) do you think there is anything to negotiate over?

    2) Does the Obama administration think there is anything to negotiate over?

    I’m genuinely curious about 1, but I’m pretty sure given statements that have been made by Obama, Biden, Clinton, Mullen, Gates, Samore and others that the Obama administration does not consider talks worth having if they do not lead to Iran giving up, as Biden says “any modicum” of nuclear capability.

  16. Ataune (History)


    “Suspend” in the language of 5+1 has a specific meaning: stopping enrichment and having the inspectors seal all the centrifuges. With cameras already monitoring any move around those devices in Natanz. Such “suspension” will be a big negotiation leverage in the hands of 5+1. If the goal of 5+1 was genuinely, as proclaimed, to make sure that Iran program is geared toward peaceful purposes, and not the complete cessation of enrichment and the giving-up of its soverreign right, it could have lived-up by the current informal slow-down that Iran has introduced in its enrichment activities since last year: a strong political confidence building measure I would say. This alone is one reason, among others, that Iran should not, and will not, “suspend” its enrichment activities while negotiating.

  17. FSB

    Any way you look at it the sanctions are useless and we will have military confrontation if we continue on this trajectory.

  18. Josh (History)

    It is not possible, in the nature of things, to rule out a future military confrontation. But if it should ever come about, I don’t think it will somehow come about because of the sanctions.

    Here’s the last line of the preamble of UNSC Res. 1929:

    Acting under Article 41 of Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations,

    Which reads, in full:

    The Security Council may decide what measures not involving the use of armed force are to be employed to give effect to its decisions, and it may call upon the Members of the United Nations to apply such measures. These may include complete or partial interruption of economic relations and of rail, sea, air, postal, telegraphic, radio, and other means of communication, and the severance of diplomatic relations.

    (Emphasis added.)

    If you see Article 42 cited in a draft resolution, on the other hand, you might start worrying.

  19. FSB

    the point is that Iran must give up enrichment (its right enshrined under the NPT) for the sanctions to be lifted.

    Iran will not do this.

    We can argue about whether or not this is smart for Iran, but it is its international right to enrich U.

    When Iran fails to do stop enriching U, the UNSC (or the US+Israel) will say that “we tried sanctions and they did not work, on to plan B — military strikes”. Why do I say this? It is what happened in Iraq.

    That is what many of us are worried about, when we say sanctions are a prelude to war/military strikes.

  20. Josh (History)


    The sanctions resolutions don’t say “give up.” They say “suspend.”

    To be clear, we should recognize that it has long been the goal of the E3 and the U.S. to persuade Iran to give up its enrichment program in exchange for various inducements. But this goal is not inscribed in any of the resolutions.

    It should be recalled that Iran suspended its enrichment program ca. 2003, yet it has an active enrichment program today. It is not coincidental, in my judgment, that the same word — “suspend” — has been written into a series of resolutions, and not, for example, “terminate.”

    Whether this word choice reflects a legal position concerning Iran’s rights under the NPT or political considerations, it is a significant word choice.

    I understand your concerns about the Iraq precedent. That is, I believe, probably why Article 41 is explictly cited. I haven’t reviewed all of the Iraq resolutions, but UNSCR 687, certainly, referenced Chapter VII without narrowing matters down to a particular Article.

    It could be objected that all this amounts to parchment barriers, of course. But I don’t see the Obama Administration as eager to ratify the precedent of the Bush Administration. To the contrary.

  21. Josh (History)


    Sorry that I overlooked your questions.

    Yes, I think there’s something to negotiate over. Refueling the TRR, at a bare minimum. More ambitiously, from the Iranian perspective, getting out from under sanctions.

    I don’t know the current thinking in the Obama Administration, including the degree to which the Administration has a unified perspective. But I certainly don’t think they’re going to compromise on “zero enrichment” in advance of negotiations.

  22. hass (History)

    The idea that the US is merely asking for a suspension and not a permanent halt to enrichment in Iran is just not believable, and strains credulity not to mention contradicts the open statement of Clinton

    You do not have the right to have the full enrichment and reprocessing cycle under your control

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