The Phony Criticism Over Iran Sanctions 'Snapback'

06/05/2015 10:35 am ET | Updated Jun 05, 2016
SAUL LOEB via Getty Images

The P5 +1 (the U.S., France, Great Britain, China, Russia, and Germany) have reportedly reached an agreement on a "snapback" mechanism to re-impose sanctions if Iran is found in material breach of any final nuclear agreement. The French ambassador to the United States, Gerard Araud had hinted that such an agreement was in the works at a discussion hosted last week by the Atlantic Council. If reports are true, it would mean one of the major obstacles dividing the P5+1 in the negotiations has been resolved, removing one important barrier to a deal.

While the reports on the agreement on the snapback mechanism have shed some light on the general outlines, it remains tentative because Iran has yet to agree to it. According to reports on the compromise between the six powers who make up the P5+1, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will monitor and report on Iran's nuclear activities on a regular basis to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). If a violation is reported, then it is referred to a dispute resolution panel that will most likely be made of the six world powers and Iran. The panel will then issue a non-binding opinion to the UNSC, and there the final determination to "snapback" the sanctions will be made.

The details of this agreement have yet to be fully released, but this has not stopped critics such as Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post to prematurely lambaste it as yet another "concession" to Iran. It is quite curious that Rubin contends that this is a capitulation to Iranian demands given that it's an agreement negotiated internally by the P5+1 countries, not with Iran.

According to a report by the Times of Israel, Russia has agreed to waive its veto power if the reinstatement of sanctions is put to a majority vote at the UNSC. In return, the U.S. has apparently agreed to not push for automaticity of snapbacks as long as the vote is held in a timely manner after the dispute resolution panel has issued its opinion. Ambassador Araud had alluded to this agreement at last week's Atlantic Council discussion. On Wednesday, Thomas Pickering, the former U.S. ambassador to the UN, indicated that the P5+1 has reached an agreement along these lines among themselves and that it is up to Iran to sign on to it. If these reports are accurate, not only do they refute Ms. Rubin's assertions, they also signal a major concession by the Russians (and presumably everyone else on the UNSC) to give up their veto power. This is a huge victory for the U.S. and its European partners who were worried that enforcement would be stonewalled at the Security Council.

Rubin criticizes the not-yet-finalized agreement by questioning why Iran is allowed to participate in the dispute resolution panel at all. However, it would be unthinkable to judge any trial as fair if the accused is not allowed a voice to defend themselves. It is not unreasonable then to assume Iran would want to be able to make its case if there is a dispute as to its compliance with the terms of a final deal. The expectation that Iran will abrogate its sovereignty by allowing the P5+1 group -- or any combination thereof -- to determine whether it is living up to its obligations is not only unrealistic, it ignores the basic tenets of International Law.

Another point of concern for the Iranians -- who are after all a party to these negotiations, not just subject to it -- is based on the threats made by the likes of Sen. Tom Cotton and the 46 other senators who signed his letter warning that the next administration would not be bound by the terms of the agreement. The Iranian negotiators likewise fear America's willingness to abide by the terms of an agreement over the long term, and it is only natural that they would take part in a process to judge adherence to the deal.

Even if the dispute resolution panel issues its non-binding opinion in a way that is contrary to the evidence provided by the IAEA because of Iranian, Russian or Chinese maleficence, the UNSC will still make the final determination on the re-imposition of any sanctions. The details have not been revealed yet, but it is safe to assume that whatever the final snapback agreement looks like, it will not be the "formula for paralysis" Rubin suggests.

Rubin seems to equate any concession -- a natural part of any negotiation -- as one too many. Her absolutist stance extends beyond snapback, as she recommends that the U.S. "reimpose sanctions, begin to check its [Iran's] activities in the region, make the threat of force credible and then start negotiations from scratch." For Rubin, and other critics like her, the only acceptable outcome is an Iran without a single centrifuge or an ounce of nuclear material. However, Iranian nuclear know-how and the thousands of additional centrifuges amassed over the past 11 years cannot be sanctioned or bombed away. Our closest European allies recognize this fact. "The agreement is not perfect. It's a compromise," Amb. Araud stated in last week's discussion, adding that we have to accept Iran will have some limited enrichment capacity. However, it appears that for critics like Rubin any evidence of compromise -- whether with or without Iran at the table -- is just cause to shoot first and ask questions later.