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If the Iran talks fail, we won't just revert to the status quo. It'll be worse.

John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.
John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.
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Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

If the Iran nuclear talks succeed, that's potentially a major step toward peacefully limiting the country's nuclear program. If the talks fail, it's easy to assume that not a lot will change, that we'll basically revert to the status quo, in which Iran suffers under crippling economic sanctions and war remains unlikely.

But that's probably wrong. If the talks fall apart, the most likely outcome isn't the status quo; it's something worse.

This is a point deal supporters make frequently (and that deal critics made before the process began). But Dalia Dassa Kaye, the head of the RAND Corporation's Center for Middle East Public Policy, makes an especially persuasive case in a new Foreign Affairs article. If the deal collapses, she writes, a number of pretty bad things are likely to happen. Her two most compelling points are:

  1. The international sanctions regime will fall apart: "Sanctions against Iran have proven effective because of the backing they have garnered among key oil-importing countries such as China, India, South Korea, and Japan," Kaye writes. If it looks like the US was responsible for the agreement's failure, then these countries could very well quit pressuring Iran — giving Iran relief from sanctions without any of the limits on the nuclear program that a deal would impose.
  2. Iran will build up its nuclear program: Iran will likely conclude that it can never get American sanctions relief, and thus will have little incentive to continue adhering to the 2013 Joint Plan of Action — the temporary agreement that's currently limiting its nuclear advancement. Without that in place, there's less to stop Iran from watching the international sanctions regime collapse and expanding its nuclear infrastructure. And maybe even building a bomb.

This is a huge problem with the case a lot of Iran deal critics make. They often argue that if a deal isn't sufficiently favorable to the United States (a bar they at times set implausibly high), the Obama administration should just walk away until Iran is pressured into giving in to a better one. "The alternative to this bad deal is a much better deal," as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put it.

But as Kaye points out, it's unlikely that Iran would ever again face the same kind of pressure to make a deal if talks collapse. That's especially true if it really is the US's fault: say, if Congress votes to torpedo a deal Obama reaches with the Iranians.

The more sophisticated deal skeptics are aware of this problem. They point out that if Iran took a deal, got sanctions relief, and then just cheated on the terms, it could be very hard to get China and the other countries to impose new sanctions. And even if those countries agreed to sign on to new sanctions, years of cumulative economic damage to Iran would have been lost. Basically, Kaye's nightmare scenario of an unconstrained, unsanctioned Iran could happen with a deal as well — which is why some deal critics have argued that setting out on this path was always too risky.

But the sanctions regime was never going to be permanent. The entire point of sanctions imposed over Iran's nuclear program was to get Iran to give up its nuclear program. If it looks like that's not going to happen peacefully, it'll be tough for the US to sustain a rickety sanctions coalition (one that, again, includes frenemies such as China) indefinitely.

The sanctions will eventually go away, one way or another. The big question is whether the risks are greater when they're lifted as part of a deal — or when they're simply allowed to collapse under their own weight.