A Short Q&A on Sanctioning Iran

So I see that Secretary of State John Kerry's efforts to brief the Senate on why it should cool it with the Iran sanctions did not go terribly wellAt all

Republican senators sharply criticized the administration’s closed-door presentation to the Senate Banking Committee on Wednesday, an appeal that was designed to convince them to hold off on a new round of sanctions against Iran. The committee chairman said he was left “undecided.”

“It was an emotional appeal,” Sen. Bob Corker told reporters after the briefing. “I have to tell you, I was very disappointed in the presentation.”

Corker said that senators were given no details of the interim deal being formulated in negotiations between Iran and world powers in Geneva this month. Secretary of State John Kerry briefed the committee, along with Vice President Joe Biden and the State Department’s lead Iran negotiator Wendy Sherman....

“Today is the day I witnessed the future of nuclear war in the Middle East,” Kirk said, also comparing the administration to Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister who signed away the Sudetenland to Hitler’s Germany in 1938. “How do you define an Iranian moderate? An Iranian who is out of bullets and out of money.”

OK then. 

I'm pretty much a generalist when it comes to international relations, but when it comes to economic sanctions, I'm going to go out on a limb and claim some greater expertise.  Sooo.... here's a more fact-based Q&A for senators trying to figure out whether they should vote to ratchet up the sanctions on Iran: 

Q:  So what should I do, Dan? 

A:  Well, this depends crucially on what you want the sanctions to accomplish vis-à-vis Iran.  Are you interested in a nuclear deal or something more? 

Q:  For me it's something more.  I think the regime in Iran is an inherently destabilizing force in the region, and I want the sanctions to force a regime change.  What should I do? 

A:  Oh, then you should totally vote for harsher sanctions.  But after that, go home and find a four-leaf clover and wish for a pony/Batmobile/intimate dinner with Salma Hayek while you're at it, because those outcomes will be just as likely to happen. 

Repeat after me:  sanctions, on their own, will not lead to a regime change in Iran.  Over the past five years this regime has made it pretty clear what it is willing to do to stay in power. That trumps any ratcheting up of the sanctions.  Economic coercion imposes some serious economic costs on the regime, which is why they're willing to talk about a nuclear deal.  But that's a tangible negotiation.  Regime change is more existential threat, and if that's the goal of the sanctions, then the sanctions will fail and fail spectacularly. 

Q:  I want a nuclear deal, and I believe that it's the sanctions that got Iran to the negotiating table to begin with.  Therefore, more sanctions will make them more willing to deal, right? 

A:  The marginal impact of the extra sanctions will be outweighed by the fact that you've undercut your president, who's been asking you not to impose extra sanctions.  From Iran's perspective, there is no point negotiating with the Obama administration if the president can't get Congress to lift sanctions if a deal is reached.  So this wouldn't be a very smart gambit.

Q:  I care deeply about Israel's security, and therefore worry that even negotiating with Iran will be the sequel to Munich 1938.  What should I do? 

A:  Vote for more sanctions.  Then go read up on a) history; and b) the logic of nuclear deterrence. Then go into a corner, feel shame for using dumbass historical analogies, and shut the hell up. 

Q:  I want to see a deal with Iran's regime, but Tehran's past record of evading the IAEA and the Obama administration's distinguished record of bollixing up its Middle East diplomacy have me very, very skittish.  What should I do? 

A:  You raise some valid points -- some very valid points.  But it's not like this will be your only opportunity to vote on these sanctions.  Let the negotiators meet in Geneva next week and see how things plays out.  Link the progress in Geneva to not moving forward on more sanctions. 

Any more questions? 

Daniel W. Drezner

Thanks for the Natural Experiment, Wikileaks!!

Way back in the Early Stone Age of the Internet -- i.e., the mid-1990s -- a group of developed countries started negotiating a Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI).  Negotiated in semi-secret, the MAI soon triggered a backlash among elements of global civil society.  In response, they initiated mass protests, petitioned governments, and -- most subversively -- posted MAI treaty drafts on the web.  According to them -- (and, to be fair, some scholars) they played a
crucial role in the stalling out of the MAI in December 1998.  

The thing is, there is minimal evidence that global civil society was really the cause of the MAI's downfall.  As the draft documents suggested at the time, the member states were far from reaching an agreement - the last draft version of the treaty had contained almost 50 pages of country-specific exemptions. The United States and European Union were also deadlocked over the issues of extraterritorial sanctions, application of the most-favored nation principle, and cultural protectionism.  In his book Fighting the Wrong Enemy, Edward M.Graham concluded:  "the negotiations were indeed in very deep difficulty before the metaphorical torpedo was fired by the NGOs... this torpedo thus was more a coup de grâce than a fatal blow in its own right."  The precise role of global civil society in scuttling the MAI remains a topic for debate.

I bring up this ancient IPE history because it appears that Wikileaks is about to provide a great natural experiment on the power of these kind of networked actors to influence the global political economy: 

Today, 13 November 2013, WikiLeaks released the secret negotiated draft text for the entire TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) Intellectual Property Rights Chapter. The TPP is the largest-ever economic treaty, encompassing nations representing more than 40 per cent of the world’s GDP. The WikiLeaks release of the text comes ahead of the decisive TPP Chief Negotiators summit in Salt Lake City, Utah, on 19-24 November 2013. The chapter published by WikiLeaks is perhaps the most controversial chapter of the TPP due to its wide-ranging effects on medicines, publishers, internet services, civil liberties and biological patents. Significantly, the released text includes the negotiation positions and disagreements between all 12 prospective member states....

The TPP is the forerunner to the equally secret US-EU pact TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), for which President Obama initiated US-EU negotiations in January 2013. Together, the TPP and TTIP will cover more than 60 per cent of global GDP. Both pacts exclude China....

The TPP negotiations are currently at a critical stage. The Obama administration is preparing to fast-track the TPP treaty in a manner that will prevent the US Congress from discussing or amending any parts of the treaty. Numerous TPP heads of state and senior government figures, including President Obama, have declared their intention to sign and ratify the TPP before the end of 2013....

The longest section of the [Intellectual Property] Chapter – ’Enforcement’ – is devoted to detailing new policing measures, with far-reaching implications for individual rights, civil liberties, publishers, internet service providers and internet privacy, as well as for the creative, intellectual, biological and environmental commons. Particular measures proposed include supranational litigation tribunals to which sovereign national courts are expected to defer, but which have no human rights safeguards. The TPP IP Chapter states that these courts can conduct hearings with secret evidence. The IP Chapter also replicates many of the surveillance and enforcement provisions from the shelved SOPA and ACTA treaties.

The consolidated text obtained by WikiLeaks after the 26-30 August 2013 TPP meeting in Brunei – unlike any other TPP-related documents previously released to the public – contains annotations detailing each country’s positions on the issues under negotiation. Julian Assange emphasises that a “cringingly obsequious” Australia is the nation most likely to support the hardline position of US negotiators against other countries, while states including Vietnam, Chile and Malaysia are more likely to be in opposition. Numerous key Pacific Rim and nearby nations – including Argentina, Ecuador, Colombia, South Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines and, most significantly, Russia and China – have not been involved in the drafting of the treaty.

Now, Wikileaks actually has a decent point to make on the intellectual property front. It also makes many absurd points about how a) the TPP is "the largest-ever economic treaty" (when it really isn't); b) the TPP and TTIP are intertwined (when they really aren't); and c) it's so unfair that some countries are negotiating an agreement that doesn't include other countries (why, you'd never see China or Russia doing that kind of thing!!).

Truthfully, however, the substance of the TPP is not the point of this post -- it's the political economy.  Compared to the MAI, it's safe to say that the TPP negotiations are much further down the path to completion.  Furthermore, from a geopolitical perspective, the Obama administration has a lot more invested in TPP than the Clinton administration did in the MAI.  If, by publishing the draft texts, Wikileaks manages to derail the agreement, then that's a data point in favor of the power of networked global civil society.  If, on the other hand, TPP proceeds relatively unscathed, then it suggests that perhaps the power of these non-state actors has been exaggerated, even in a Web 2.0 world.