I wanted to circle back to a recent piece by Carnegie Endowment President Jessica Mathews
on Obama foreign policy. Ostensibly writing from a sympathetic perspective, I see her falling into the same trap as critics who attack the president from the right. The piece doesn't really wrestle with the trade-offs, tough calls, or factors and actors beyond the administration's control.
That said, she makes a crucial point about sanctions and Iran's nuclear program:
Ultimately, the hardest step may be persuading Congress that sanctions can be effective only if one is as prepared to lift them as to impose them. Unfortunately, Congress has gotten rather drunk on sanctioning Iran at what may turn out to be the worst time.
Absolutely, if we tighten sanctions in the absence of cooperation, then we must ease them when Tehran is more forthcoming. In seeking a peaceful solution, it's vitally important for Iran to be offered a way out of enforced isolation. Unless positive moves by Iran are reciprocated, they won't have any incentive to change course.
The aim of the negotiations should be concession and compromise, not capitulation. This is why the distinction between policy-change and regime-change is so critical. Working diplomatically to ensure the civilian nature of Iran's nuclear program entails a stark choice. If you want a non-nuclear weapon Iran, this necessarily means reaching a deal with the regime in Tehran. If the true aim is to drive Iranian leaders from power, they'll just barrelahead with the nuclear program.
After the breakdown of talks in the fall of 2009, I supported the tightening of sanctions. Sensitive to charge of wanting "sanctions for sanctions' sake," I offereded a rationale in my review of Trita Parsi's excellent book for Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
. As Rouhani assumes the presidency and a new round of talks tests his intentions, the question gains new salience. There is still the matter of how much sanctions-relief should be exchanged for what level of cooperation, but Jessica hit the nail on the head: in order to work, sanctions have to be ratcheted downward and not just ever-tightened.
[NOTE: An earlier version of this post used a Jon Wolfsthal tweet as a point of departure. I misconstrued Jon's intent and apologize for implicating him in my own critique.]