U.S. Strategy and Added Sanctions on Iran: The Role of the Administration and Congress in a “Good Cop, Bad Cop” Approach

The proper handling of new legislation to impose added sanctions on Iran can be a useful tool in serving U.S. strategic interests.  The differences between the United States and Iran are not the result of failures in communication, mutual misunderstanding, or the legacy of historical mistakes. They are the result of major strategic differences and Iranian actions that directly challenge U.S. and allied strategic interests.

Iran’s Strategic Challenges to the U.S. and its Partners and Allies

The nuclear challenge is only one of many challenges; and they go far beyond the risk of crossing the nuclear threshold and the near- to mid-term threat any Iranian actions can pose to mature nuclear powers, such as Israel. While Iranian leaders may well be divided about the risks and costs of 'going nuclear,' Iran has good reasons to pursue nuclear forces as a means of deterring U.S. air and seapower, of compensating for its aging and low-grade conventional forces and weapons, and of intimidating its Arab Gulf neighbors.

If Iran seeks power and influence, it will not seek nuclear weapons for prestige or because of Israel. In fact, at least some of Iran's hostility towards Israel is clearly a smokescreen to justify its efforts to offset U.S. conventional military power in the Gulf and gain a strategic edge over its Arab neighbors without openly challenging either.

Iran cannot do this with one or two bombs in the basement – or the threat of untested nuclear weapons. It needs nuclear armed aircraft and missiles with enough nuclear weapons and enough survivability to act as both credible threat and deterrent – although it can compensate in part by keeping its capabilities as ambiguous as possible and relying on strategies like launch on warning or launch under attack.

There is no way to determine Iran’s full intentions or determine how different Iranian factions view nuclear weapons with any certainty. Iran’s strategic options are, however, much easier to assess. If Iran can actually deploy meaningful nuclear forces, they can play a critical role in strengthening four other critical strategic challenges that Iran can then leverage against the United States and its regional partners and allies:

  • The first such strategic challenge is the power vacuum the U.S. invasion of Iraq created in 2003 by largely destroying Iraq’s conventional forces and ability to deter and defend against Iran, coupled to the fact that the Maliki government in Iraq has become progressively more a Shi’ite sectarian government and one under substantial Iranian influence. There are serious limits to this Iranian conventional threat and leverage. So long as the United States maintains major air and naval capabilities in the Gulf and Iran’s conventional forces remain weak, the United States can both aid Iraq and attack targets in Iran.

    Any form of Iranian nuclear threat is dangerous, but as North Korean, Indian, and Pakistani tests have shown, it takes actual testing of a fissile device to create a credible weapon. Even then, a token mix of possible, unproved bombs in the basement is no deterrent to the kind of nuclear forces Israel possesses. Nor can it deter the mix of stealth and other precision strike conventional systems U.S. and key Arab Gulf air forces possess, or U.S. capabilities to provide regional allies with the kind of extended nuclear deterrence it once provided to its NATO allies and Secretary Clinton offered our allies in the region.

    In contrast, if Iran can actually and credibly arm a significant number of its forces with nuclear weapons, any talk of preventive strikes becomes totally hollow, and while the risk of Iran actually using a nuclear weapon will still be limited, it is far from clear that any nation will take that risk if they can possibly avoid it.
  • The second is the steady buildup of Iran’s capability to use rockets and missiles to attack targets in the Gulf and the region. While the United States tends to focus on Iran’s longer-range missile threat, this is only part of a major buildup of missiles and very long-range artillery rockets that can compensate for Iran’s low grade and obsolete air and air-to-surface missile forces and attack targets around Iran’s borders and particularly in the Arab Gulf states.

    At present, however, these forces are too inaccurate to hit key strategically important military and civil targets and their conventional payloads have limited lethality even against populated areas and when used as terror weapons.

    This situation would change radically if Iran either could arm them with nuclear warheads or terminal homing conventional warheads with the kind of accuracy that could attack key fixed military sites or the Gulf’s extraordinarily vulnerable mix of civil targets like key petroleum installations or desalination plants. This gives the United States a key additional strategic interest in preventing Iran from deploying a nuclear-armed force.

    It also gives the United States an equal interest in aiding all of its regional partners and allies in creating effective missile defenses, and in denying Iraq the kind of technology that would allow it to give its missiles terminal homing capability – a capability that could transform even conventionally armed missiles into weapons of mass effectiveness in terms of petroleum exports and the water supplies critical to Arab Gulf states.
  • The third is the steady build-up of Iranian capabilities for asymmetric warfare in the Gulf, at the Strait of Hormuz, and in the Gulf of Oman/Arabian Sea. Iran’s conventional air, sea, and land forces may be largely obsolete and low grade systems, but it has been compensating by creating a steadily larger and more effective mix of unconventional naval forces, missile patrol boats, submarines and submersibles, smart mines, long-range anti-ship missiles, and other systems it can use to attack shipping, targets like petroleum facilities in the Gulf, and targets along the shorelines of the Arab Gulf states.

    These forces are now dispersed - or can rapidly disperse -  along Iran’ s entire shoreline from Iraq to Pakistan. Some are concentrated at the Strait of Hormuz, but Iran controls key islands in the main shipping channels inside the Gulf and can attack anywhere in it or outside it. The threat of such attacks can give it powerful political leverage, and the ability to demonstrate that leverage with exercises, limited acts of violence, focused attacks, and low-level wars of attrition if it has the ability to deter retaliation by U.S. air and seapower, and the steadily improving air strike capabilities of nations like Saudi Arabia and the UAE – each of which is acquiring far more advanced than Iran possesses and can acquire.

    A nuclear-armed Iran would have far more credibility and capability in making or implementing threats to use asymmetric forces to “close the Gulf.” Without such capabilities – or some other credible way to escalate like conventionally armed missiles with terminal guidance – Iran faces the reality that making good on such threats may shut off its own energy exports and food and other critical imports, and the United States and Southern Arab Gulf states can escalate with far more effectiveness and credibility than Iran.

    This also is an area of critical strategic interest to the United States. For all of the talk of energy independence, the Department of Energy estimated in December 2013 that U.S. dependence on imports of liquid fuels would not drop below 32%. Additionally, U.S. indirect imports of petroleum are now far larger because of U.S. dependence on imports of good from Asia, and the United States pays the increased world prices for petroleum in any crisis in the Gulf. Energy independence is worse than a myth, it is strategic drivel.
  • The fourth strategic challenge is enhancing Iran’s ability to exert strategic influence in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and potentially in the rest of the region around Iran’s borders.  Iran already has the ability to exploit the growing sectarian divisions in Iraq and the Levant, use Israel as a way of justifying its role, and providing arms, money, training, and operations by the MOIS/MISIRI, and Al Quds force. The fact remains, however, that a nuclear-armed Iran would have more capability to deter any military action by the United States, Arab states, and Israel; and nuclear capability would give it far more status in all the areas on its borders.

The P5+1 Negotiations and the Impact of Sanctions

One can argue the extent to which given factions in Iran support all, or any, of the elements of such strategic logic, and whether there are real Iranian “moderates” and real “conservatives” or hard-liners. Iranian official and military rhetoric is deeply divided and inconsistent even when it comes from the same official or officer, and is shaped by an official denial that Iran is even considering a nuclear weapons option. Accordingly, one can find enough “moderate” statements to make the case that some kind of “grand bargain” is possible that goes far beyond the nuclear dimension, and the fact that there are hard-liners in the Supreme Leader’s office and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) that would push Iran’s covert nuclear options to their limit.
For the same reason, it is possible to argue for and against the success of existing sanctions in pushing Iran to negotiate. Iran issues enough contradictory statements on sanctions by senior officials to make it easy to quote almost any position imaginable.

In broad terms, however, the mass of technical evidence published by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and a wide range of reporting and analysis on Iran’s forces and strategic ambitions, create a very high probability that Iran’s top leaders have pursued the deployment of nuclear forces for the reasons just outlined.

Similarly, the changes in Iran’s behavior that made the present interim nuclear agreement and ongoing negotiations possible are so closely tied to the development of far stronger U.S. and EU sanctions – and their successful impact over time – that it is hard to argue that Iran would ever have negotiated on anything like its present terms if they have not been imposed at the end of 2011.

Accordingly, U.S. and P5+1 actions do need to be shaped by the fact that truly strong sanctions do seem to have had a major impact on Iranian behavior in spite of all the potential advantages of going nuclear and that ordinary diplomacy plus limited to moderate sanctions do not. (For a detailed history of sanctions on Iran -- and their political, economic, and military impact  -- see US and Iranian Strategic Competition: Sanctions, Arms Control, and Regime Change - This report examines the impact of sanctions on the Iranian regime, Iran’s energy sector, and the prospects for regime change in Tehran.)

Understand and Remember the Real Objective: Keeping Iran From Deploying Meaningful Nuclear Forces

At the same time, the United States now has every incentive to leverage the success of existing sanctions, take full advantage of the current climate, and to try to make the current negotiations work. They are by far the safest way to remove an Iranian nuclear threat, and it is critical to remember what the threat really is: The real objective is to deny Iran military capability, not to try to deny it technology it has already acquired.

Iran is already at the nuclear breakout point in terms of nuclear enrichment technology.  No amount of Israeli or U.S. preventive strikes can roll back Iran’s level of technical understanding. No credible level of Israeli preventive strikes can seriously affect Iran’s technology base. No credible level of U.S. strikes can guarantee that Iran cannot make enough progress in centrifuge design to be able to create a covert and sheltered centrifuge program whether or not most of  Iran’s current centrifuge facilities and production base is hit in preventive strikes.

Iran can carry out covert weapons design activities with little fear of detection. Regardless of what did or did not happened at Parchin, Iran can carry out tests of simulated nuclear weapons that are fully functional except for lacking the kind of fissile core that would actually explode. Pakistan used such methods, and in some ways they provide more technical data on how well a given weapons design functions than an actual nuclear explosion.

Iran can seek weapons design data from countries like North Korea, and can carry out simulated missile and air delivery of warheads and bombs designed to mirror nuclear weapons designs. Stuffing the genie back into the bottle is fine in fairy tales, but it does not work well in reality.
Establishing credible inspection of Iranian enrichment activity – whether centrifuge or plutonium related activities such as the heavy water reactor at Arak – is likely to be far more productive than a failed effort to suppress all activity or one that drives Iran into multiple covert efforts.

In any case, halting all weapons related technological progress in Iran is not only is not feasible, it is not the strategic objective. The strategic objective is to keep it from ever being able create some kind of fissile even which demonstrates it can create a nuclear explosion, it is to prevent Iran from testing an actual nuclear weapons design to the point where it knows it can predict its yield and reliability, and above all, it is to keep Iran from producing and deploying a significant number of nuclear weapons.

The P5+1 and the United States have not yet made fully public all of the terms of the progress they made in defining and implementing the terms of the interim agreement that they announced on January 12, and will go into effect on January 20, 2014. Some steps are to be further explored in February.

At least to date, however, the limits on Iran in terms of permitted activities, improved transparency, and increased inspection would make even the most covert production, testing, and deployment of nuclear weapons extraordinarily difficult. Iran might quietly get to the point of a crude test of a gun or implosion device, but this test could scarcely then remain covert. Unless Iran has acquired full and proven design and test data from the outside, it would then have to test each design and the timeline to create a mature and deployable weapons design is very different from the short timelines Iran would need to bring its 20% enriched material to weapons grade. 

It is extraordinarily difficult to believe Iran could actually deploy reliable nuclear missile warheads and bombs without being detected. Iran might run such a risk, or carry out an even higher risk strategic bluff.  The risk, however, would be incredible. It would become an existential bet that could lead to nuclear armed preventive strike on Iran, or the creation of a level of extended deterrence and US, Arab, Israeli and other outside reaction that would do far more to contain Iran than the forces Iran now faces.  Moreover, Iran could never know what level of intelligence the United States and other powers could gather if Iran either tried to bluff or deployed an untested weapon.  A bluff would be an open invitation to preventive strikes.

If the next six months between January 20, 2014 and July 20, 2014 show that Iran is actually complying with an agreement that credibly prevents it from developing and deploying meaningful nuclear weapons, this is the strategic objective that matters. If a permanent agreement is reached during this period that credibly achieves more lasting results, it not only will be a strategic success, but the possible prelude to the kind of negotiations and dialogue that could address the other four threats that threaten the region and the world’s petroleum supplies.

Preventing testing and deployment of actual nuclear weapons is actually achievable with the right agreement, the right enforcement, and the right incentives for Iran. It is far easier to verify and enforce than denying Iran the necessary nuclear technology or trying to end all of its nuclear power related activity. It is the standard of success that both the Administration and the Congress should pursue. Neither the Administration nor the Congress should focus on limiting Iranian technology to levels which could not be enforced even with major preventive strikes and ultimately have no major strategic importance.

The Administration as “Good Cop” and the Congress as “Bad Cop”

Preventing the testing and deployment of actual nuclear weapons is also the standard on which a “good cop” versus “bad cop” U.S. approach to further sanctions should be based.  To the extent there are “moderates” or “pragmatists” around Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Rouhani, they will need incentives in order to move forward, as well as a constant level of pressure that will help convince their harder-line colleagues in Iran that Iran not only needs to give up its nuclear option, but will benefit in the process. 

The Administration should be the “good cop” in this process. It does not have to concede to Iran in any way, but it does have to appear as the rational bargainer that will negotiate a deal Iran can live with and has an incentive to live with, as well.  The Congress will serve U.S. interests best by being the “bad cop,” and by calling for tough terms and verification, threatening quick restoration of sanctions if negotiations falter or fail, and raising the specter of worse sanctions to come.

In practice, these are the roles the Administration and Congress are already playing. The Administration has offered a credible mixture of incentives and disincentives without any sign that it will pursue negotiations for negotiations sake or will sacrifice of U.S. and allied strategic interests.

The Congress has taken a harder line. Key members and committees in both Houses are now pressing for demanding terms and demanding verification and enforcement. The Congress is threatening an immediate return to the past sanctions and the imposition of far stronger sanctions if a suitable agreement is not reached or Iran fails to comply.

The key to success, however, will be for the “bad cop” to avoid pushing to the point of failure. The best way to move forward is to do what the Senate Majority Leader, Senator Harry Reid, evidently has already proposed to do: keep the option of new sanctions legislation constantly open, but not confront Iran and other nations by passing such legislation if and when the negotiations fail, or Iran is shown to violate an agreement. Defer a vote on new sanctions until the ongoing efforts to fully define and create enforcement provisions for interim agreement effort fail or Iran violates them. And if Iran does move forward and complies with the interim agreement – defer a sanctions vote until it is clear whether Iran agrees to and complies with a permanent agreement.

The Administration and the Congress need to work together in ways that recognize that any real hope for a successful effort depends on finding a delicate balance that avoids a major diplomatic confrontation with Iran, offers Iran incentives as well as disincentives, and gives Iranian “moderates” a real chance to combat the hardliners in their own government, if they seriously want a successful outcome. 

They also need to forge a dialogue based on progress reporting on what Iran actually does, and how it actually affects its ability to develop and deploy nuclear weapons. Far too much of the current public dialogue focuses on theoretical capability to acquire enough fissile material and not on what is known and not known about Iran’s capability to develop and deploy nuclear weapons. This kind of intelligence and design data cannot be public, but the Administration and the Congress must find some way to “trust but verify,” and focus on the core issue and real strategic objective.

Both also need to understand that a great deal of Iranian rhetoric must be able to describe any deal as some form of Iranian victory, that the Iranian assembly may repeat measures like calling for 60% enrichment, and that the goal the United States should pursue is substantive success, not threatening or embarrassing Iran. President Rouhani has already described the interim agreement as an Iranian victory. Fair enough. This is not a zero-sum game, and both sides must be able to demonstrate some sort of political victory to buoy their efforts and combat domestic opponents. It is substance that counts, and the United States and its partners will all benefit if Iranian politics strengthen moderation, dialogue, and better relations. 

Iranian press reporting and past polls show the Iranian public does not support Iranian nuclear weapons, but is highly nationalistic and does support Iranian nuclear research and nuclear power reactors. This does not mean the United States should accept any agreement or Iranian actions that does not end in preventing Iran from having actual nuclear weapons. However, if the Congress goes too far it risks alienating Iran, and could undercut Iran’s moderates and pragmatists to the point where they lose support from the Supreme Leader.

Moreover, if the United States gets the blame for pushing too hard and making the negotiations fail, the United States will find it far harder to gain outside support for a resumption of sanctions, for building up military capabilities in the Gulf, and for any form of preventive strikes. Given the history of U.S. intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, far too many countries already question U.S. judgment and willingness to use force. It is critical that if the negotiations fail, Iran is clearly seen at fault, not the United States.

This doesn't mean the “bad cop” should be passive. Congress should keep threat of more sanctions legislation on the table, create a bipartisan draft that both House can accept and quickly act upon – and make it repeatedly and consistently clear that such legislation should be quickly brought up and passed if the negotiations fail. It should work with the Administration to get veto proof terms and careful draft some form of Presidential waiver so the United States is not confronted with either some form of public battle over a veto or forced into overreacting when Iran’s actions are ambiguous or slow to comply.

The Congress can also play a role in shaping the kind of dialogue with the P5+1 and EU that will ensure that UN and EU sanctions go back into effect if a meaningful permanent agreement is not reached or Iran is shown to be violating the interim or permanent agreement. It can hold hearings to make it clear that the United States sees this as a critical priority. Visits and statements by key members of Congress can help communicate this message to other P5+1 and EU states. Strong U.S. sanctions will fail if the United States does not have partners in such efforts, and members of Congress can be far more frank in sending a public message.

There is a clear need for hearings and for classified and unclassified reporting requirements that will institutionalize Congress review of the progress in developing and enforcing a meaningful agreement. The Congress can take the lead in providing reporting and hearings that will inform outside experts and media and  reassure the American public, and key partners like the Arab Gulf states and Israel.

This will take real leadership to avoid partisanship, focus on substance rather than polarized political stands, and find the right balance between open and classified reporting, but there has to be a far better basis for making as many details of the agreement and Iranian compliance public as possible. Vague assurances like those in the formal statements the President and Secretary Kerry issued after the January 12th agreement may have been necessary given Iranian politics at the time, but they breed mistrust, opposition, and partisanship.

Looking Beyond the Bomb

This is as far as the “bad cop” should go until it is fully clear that a meaningful way of implementing an adequate interim and permanent agreement is not possible, or Iran is shown to be violating its agreements. At the same time, the Administration and Congress do need to go further.
U.S. strategy and policy cannot simply be based on the Iranian nuclear threat. The United States needs to establish a clear basis for addressing the other four threats outlined earlier in this paper, for reassuring Israel and our Arab partners that the United States will stand firm where it should and will not accommodate Iran in other areas, and also showing Iran there are options for far broader efforts to negotiate stability and security in the region that will benefit Iran as well as its neighbors.

The Administration and Congress need to work together to develop hearings and reporting requirements that address all of the strategic challenges Iran now poses – not just the nuclear one.
While Secretary Hagel and Secretary Kerry have made recent efforts to reassure our regional partners, far too many now fear that the United States is “pivoting” towards Asia as the expense of its commitments to its partners in the Middle East, cutting its forces in the region, and, in the case of the Arab states, abandoning its existing partners for some kind of deal with Iran. 

More official reporting to Congress and to the media on U.S. forces and activities in the region, on U.S. arms transfers, and how the United States is reacting to each Iranian challenge will help, particularly if it focuses on public understanding of the true U.S. position and not simply dialogue with local leaders.  More well-focused hearings and visits by Administration officials and members of Congress to carefully listen to the views of our partners, and communicate with local media and experts, can play a critical role in defusing the lack of understanding, confusion, and conspiracy theories that the P5+1 negotiations with Iran – coupled to U.S. problems in dealing with Egypt, Syria, and Iraq – have created.

At the same time, such Congressional Hearings can play the role of the “good cop” as well. Such hearings can go beyond what U.S. diplomats can officially discuss. They can use outside witnesses to explore the extent to which new security agreements and incentives might lead Iran to work with its neighbors and not against them, and give Iran the kind of security and stability that would benefit Iran as much as our regional partners. The Congress can help make it clear to Iran that there is a real set of options, and that the United States is not hostile to Iran but only to the kind of Iranian actions that now present a threat.

This will take time, and it may be years before Iran’s politics evolve to the point where the regime eases its current internal controls, and deals with its neighbors in ways that allow the United States to ease its strategic position in the region. It may also prove to be impossible to make such progress in the near to mid-term. Assuming a successful nuclear agreement will somehow automatically lead to a U.S. “grand bargain” with Iran is a strategy that goes far beyond relying on a triumph of hope over experience – it requires a reliance on miracles. It is time, however, for the United States to work with both our regional partners and Iran to at least make a beginning.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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