AIC Research Associate Ceena Modarres interviews Richard Nephew of the Brookings Institution

Ceena Modarres - Opponents of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) have raised concerns over possible barriers to effectively snapping back sanctions in the case of cheating and instituting new sanctions for Iran’s other illicit activities. In response, you have maintained that ‘context matters.’ Could you explain this idea?

Richard Nephew - Sure. If we had a terrorist attack that is directly linked to Iranian groups, our ability to demonstrate to other people that we can only respond through a combination of force and major economic sanctions is much stronger. On the other hand, if we were seen as targeting minor incidents, our sanctions would be viewed as disproportionate.

Sanctions are now considered a weapon of war. Thus, the United States has to deal with the consequences. This is most pronounced with Iran and the possible [international] response to new nuclear sanctions.

Modarres – Opponents of the JCPOA argue that increasing sanctions can force Iran to make further concessions. Data support the idea that sanctions have decimated the Iranian economy. But, centrifuge development rapidly increased from about 3,500 in 2010 to over 19,000 in 2015. What is your perspective on this?

Nephew – I don’t think we should terminate the use of sanctions. But, sanctions have consequences that must be managed. Iran’s decision to escalate the number of centrifuges is an example. Sanctions can be effective, so long as you have an explicit objective. If you are prepared to accept a nuclear program in Iran, then you design your sanctions to meet the goal of curtailing enrichment. On the other hand, if our goal was to eliminate the nuclear program entirely, then the terms of our sanctions would be far more draconian. All of these factors play into designing sanctions.

Modarres – Could redesigning sanctions with the objective of eliminating the nuclear program be an effective strategy?

Nephew – I think this is what people are arguing, but no one has been able to convince me that piling on more sanctions doesn’t mean Iran piling on centrifuges. I would ascribe a low likelihood to additional sanctions attaining a better deal. Some experts may ascribe a higher likelihood, but even they wouldn’t ascribe 100%. I would argue that there is under a 5% chance sanctions would yield a better deal. It’s far more likely it would either produce a worse deal with more centrifuges or war. No one wants war, but the escalatory spiral between Iran and the U.S. would lead us to war. It may not be tomorrow, but it would be soon. Even if you don’t want war, you can find war. Would that be an acceptable outcome?

Modarres – How do you see the future of U.S.-Iran relations if the JCPOA passes?

Nephew – I don’t think there will be a broader rapprochement anytime soon. That would kill the nuclear deal [politically]. However, if [the U.S. and Iran] can demonstrate their ability to cooperate, then further diplomatic efforts are possible. But, I think that the U.S. is headed towards more confrontation with Iran over the next 3-5 years due to the instability in the Middle East.

However societal and generational change are a platform for better relations. The people of Iran are going to experience what it means to be integrated into the international community. They will demand continued integration. The young Iranian population will eventually lead the way to a better relationship.