The Ethical Price of Sanctions is Never Discussed: Twelve Questions for Ray Takeyh
The Ethical Price of Sanctions is Never Discussed: Twelve Questions for Ray Takeyh
Iranians have voted for a new president, recasting the prospects for the country's nuclear diplomacy for the first time in nearly a decade. But President-elect Hassan Rouhani, having inherited a gutted economy, an angry populace, and a restive region, will face formidable challenges on all fronts. Ray Takeyh is one of Washington's foremost Iran experts, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former Senior Advisor on Iran at the State Department. We turned to him to discuss the ethical cost of international sanctions, whether the oft-mentioned 'military option of last resort' is just talk, and how Iran has been reduced, in the eyes of the West, to a “giant centrifuge plant that just happens to have 75 million people loitering about.”
Iranians voted for moderation en masse when they elected Hassan Rouhani, do you see that amounting to significant political capital. How do you see the prospects for change with his presidency?
I suspect that in the initial phases, the first year or so, he'll have probably some greater latitude because of his popularity, which is not comparable to [the vote Khatami received in] 1997, Rouhani got just 51 percent of vote. He will have some leeway about some initiatives he wants to take in that initial year, but what happens after that is that system always rebalances itself, there will be some attempts to restrain him. The second thing is what he's learned from precedent about how to approach the system. I suspect that given he's a cautious person, he may proceed with a degree of caution. Actually in that sense he might be self-restraining.
But didn't the vote make clear that everyone – including much of the regime – thought the regime was going down the wrong path?
A sort of consensus behind the nuclear program has been fractured at the popular and elite level. The question is where do they go from here. The things Rouhani said in his campaign are things he's been saying over the last ten years and can be read in this book. But the question is more than just tone and style, but one of transparency and whether the regime is prepared to dismantle key aspects of its program – the shipping out of fuel, the closing down of Fordo. Because the program has matured to an extent where I suspect Western powers would want some recision of capabilities, but whether that can be negotiated through the system remains to be seen.
And while the consensus is broken, there are still important, powerful actors who indicated during the debates that they're unwilling to defect: Jalili, Haddad-Adel, they even used the word Vietnam, so there is a portion that feels the politics of resistance is the way to go, and that Iran can get a better deal on the other side of mushroom cloud. The program itself given its maturity is also determining parameters of discussion and compromise solutions. This is not 2003 anymore, the heavy water route has come to crystallization.
Sanctions seem to have been very effective in changing attitudes amongst Iranian decision-makers. Do you think there's a danger, however, of sanctions and pressure becoming an ends in themselves?
The problem with a dispute that has lingered as long as this one has is that both sides become bedevilled by their successes. The Iranians are bedevilled by their installations and the program's growth, and they're reluctant to concede and dismantle. Sanctions policy has not just matured but has become internationalized, and it it moves forward the executive branch's room for maneuver has been limited. The president now has authority not to waive sanctions but to suspend sanctions, some of them for three to six months, but that waiver authority has limited duration.
In some respects the Iranian argument about how they are asked to dismantle [nuclear] capabilities on a permanent basis, while sanctions relief is offered on an interim basis subject to renewal, [with the possibility] that that may fall on the shoals of American politics, that argument has some resonance. But the reality of the sanctions regime is that it's legalized and institutionalized, and has bi-partisan majorities on the Hill. For instance, the Central bank sanctions passed 100 to zero, and there will be another round of sanctions legislation working its way through the Hill.
There is ingenuity to the sanctions regime, they keep on coming up with imaginative stuff I've never even heard of, and that momentum [in Congress] is likely to continue. But even where we are today is a restrictive legislative space for the executive branch, even though there is more political space with the changes inside Iran. I don't see there being the sophistication on the Iranian side to see how intricate and binding the sanctions regime is.
If some of the sanctions are rolled back, how soon will Iran be able to feel the effects?
The prospect of regaining international market shares is limited, [firms] are just going to be hesitant to return to the Iranian market after they've left it. Market shares don't last forever, and the prospects of Iran re-integrating into the global economy in a pre-sanctions way is compromised, not entirely, but to a large extent. Iran will face more a more constrained international market.
Rouhani is inheriting a far more mature nuclear program than the one he negotiated over in 2003. Does there seem less room for diplomacy today? How long does Iran have before a military option re-emerges as the option of last resort?
I don't believe that anybody is prepared to leave the table. That's as true for the P5+1 as it is for the Iranians, for different reasons. I never really bought into the argument that the US was prepared to use military force before the advent of the Rouhani presidency, I've never accepted that and [do so] even less today. Because I never bought into military force being at the end of the rainbow, it doesn't affect my calculations.
I think that when negotiations fail it doesn't mean they stop. If failure means they must be stopped, they would have stopped at Geneva, Almaty, Baghdad... but they are running on their own momentum, and the reason why it's running on is that no one wants to stop and contemplate the alternative. I suspect that it will just go on. At some point there has to be some kind of an agreement on some aspect to justify the prolongation of this, and I suspect that will unfold with some kind of agreement around 20 percent, which will give this diplomacy room for persistence. They've persisted liked this for 10 years, a modest agreement will carry them forward another quarter of a century.
What are the costs of this never-ending cycle of negotiations?
The danger is the real possibility of the Iranian economy just withering away, which is an aspect of the Iran issue that is never discussed: the ethical price the P5+1 has paid for the success of sanctions. I suspect they have significantly damaged the national economy and therefore national well being. Iran is not where Iraq was in the 1990s, with the implosion of its civil society and middle class, but certainly there has been some collective damage done to Iranian society. I don't have an antiseptic alternative to it, and diplomacy has to have a coercive complement, but I do think that we don't really talk about the humanitarian aspect of sanctions policy.
That's a difficult conversation to have. Sanctions do amount to collective punishment, but often times such discussions focus on the injustice Iran faces and ignore the role Iran has played in getting to that point. Where does the fixation on Iran's nuclear issue eventually lead us?
Before the advent of the nuclear issue, around 2002-2003, Iran was talked about in terms of its politics and regional role. Now increasingly Iran is thought out in the public and official imagination as this giant centrifuge plant that just happens to have 75 million people loitering about. The extent to which they're taken to account is in how to deprive and dispossess them in order to [deal with] an enrichment plant. This has obscured other aspects of the Iranian debate, [the fact that] Iran has politics, it has politics of dissent, it has people writing about civil society, about Islamic discourse versus participatory politics it has all kinds of things. There is more to this country than Natanz and Fordo, the only two cities people seem to recognize.
That's the unfortunate aspect of the maturation of the nuclear program on international observation of Iran, all is seen through the prism of nuclear program. The subornation of the Iranian national narrative to atomic science. I have seen that in my lifetime.
What can the United States and Iran offer one another in terms of political cover to take things forward?
As part of his representation, Saeed Jalili had tabled a proposal at the last summit meeting that called for discontinuation of 20 percent [enrichment] in exchange for sanctions relief. I don't know the scope of that request, but I do think that kind of formulation can probably succeed. The Iranians have been trying to sell 20 percent for a long time, they are trying to stop that but want a reward for it; the price has been inordinate for the P5+1, maybe there will be a change in those calculations. They are prepared to stop 20 percent, and the international community has determined 20 percent as troublesome activity, so I see those stars aligning. Iran wants to do little and get a lot in return, the international community wants less, so it's a question of connecting the dots. In 10 years of negotiations the two sides have had innumerable meetings but haven't been able to connect the dots around 20 percent, [but] I can see that coming about. It would allow both sides to kick the can down their streets.
With sectarian tensions in the Middle East growing more fraught by the day, how will Rouhani fare in dealing with the Persian Gulf states?
This is another obstacle for Rouahni's presidency. He talked about mending fences with Saudi Arabia as one of his initiatives during his time at the national security establishment. I don't know if that's still possible today given the sectarian cleavages and how they've been sharpened by developments in Iraq and Syria and offshoots of that, which make the prospects of regional diplomacy difficult. The region is fracturing into different politics invested in civil conflicts that are increasingly colored by sectarian identity which by implication sort of limits Iran's regional reach.
Iraqi Prime Minister Maleki always says that [what's going on in] Syria is really about Iraq, that the Sunni block is trying to reclaim Syria after having lost Iraq. So the reception Rouhani will get this time around may be less accommodating than in the late 1990s, when he attempted rapprochement with the Saudis, who are in an ambiguous position around their success. The nuclear issue certainly adds to apprehension of the Gulf states, but I don't think that's all there is to it. The Saudis would want to see things, and maybe the freight would be too much to bear on the Iranian side. It's what President Khatami has been complaining about, expectations being too high for speedy developments and that creating another problem of its own.
Rouhani could bring greater openness to Iran and end the exclusionary politics of last eight years. If you put the nuclear program aside, he looks poised to make a positive difference to Iranian civic and political life. Would making progress in this areas enhance his credibility with the West in a meaningful way?
Those steps need to be taken for his own domestic constituency, and I suspect not, as I said earlier the nuclear issue obscures all other issues. The West was prepared to transact with Ahmadinejad after 2009 with limited if any compunction really. So that's just the way it has been viewed. The centrality of the nuclear danger as its perceived means a willingness to deal with those who abuse or empower.
As a principle of decency, Rouhani really ought to try to release those in jail who voted for him, like Tajzadeh, just as a principle of decorum and decency. That would be an important test of his own ability to rebalance and sort of normalize Iranian politics. It would enhance his own authority and moral stature, if that’s possible, but in terms of the West if he enriches uranium and released Karroubi, I don't think anyone will care. Maybe that's being cynical, but it doesn't seem to be a priority. For the executive branch issues of nuclear danger are more immediate. I might be wrong about that. But I don't think he can release the nuclear burden by a more humane policy at home. The argument that he's trying and that therefore the West should be more open to him will be enhanced. But Iran has been seen as a collection of centrifuge plants and no longer a collection of human beings.
Let's try to end on a light note. Do you follow the Iranian volleyball team? What is your favourite Iranian novel?
Unfortunately, I don't follow the volleyball. As a matter of personal discipline which is flawed, I don't read novels, the field of Iranian Studies is flawed and poor, and those words are properly attributable to me as well. But my favorite book on Iran is Roy Mottahadeh's Mantle of the Prophet, it has always been the book I've looked to, and in 25 years I haven't seen anyone do it better.