‘Crowing’ About Iran Sanctions Should Stop

Written by

Daniel Joyner is Professor of Law at the University of Alabama School of Law. His research interests are focused in nuclear weapons nonproliferation law and civilian nuclear energy law. He has also written extensively on international use of force law, and on the UN Security Council. He is the author of International Law and the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (Oxford University Press, 2009) and Interpreting the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (Oxford University Press, 2011).

There is a good bit of “crowing” going on at the moment by US officials, particularly about the role of Western financial sanctions in “bringing Iran to the table” for negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the West about its nuclear program. For example, US Treasury Under-Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen said regarding these sanctions:

“They [Iran] are increasingly isolated — diplomatically, financially and economically … I don’t think there is any question that the impact of this pressure played a role in Iran’s decision to come to the table.”

This assessment, however, reflects a good deal of peripheral blindness: both about the past and about the future of the Western sanctions program.

If the question is: has the policy of institutional escalation at the IAEA and the UN Security Council (UNSC), and the imposition of sanctions on Iran by the UN, the US and the European Union (EU), had an influence on Iran’s actions and the development of a crisis between Iran and the West over its nuclear program, the answer is definitely yes. But not in the way these crowing US officials think.

The reasons that Iran stopped implementing its Additional Protocol safeguards agreement with the IAEA back in 2005, pulled back from meaningful discussions with the IAEA and the West at the same time, have since become entrenched in their determination not to give in to Western pressure, and even threatened to block the straits of Hormuz and send world oil prices skyrocketing, have been explicitly stated by Iran to be the decisions by the IAEA and the UNSC requiring Iran to cease its enrichment of uranium beginning in 2005, and the sanctions that have been imposed by the UNSC, and unilaterally by the US and the EU, since that time.

To put it simply, the West’s sanctions program is the reason that Iran pulled back from the negotiating table in the first place.

To now claim that Western sanctions have had the successful effect of bringing Iran back to the negotiating table is to ignore this broader view of the history of the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program, and the material role that Western sanctions have played in actually creating and intensifying the crisis.

With regard to the future of the crisis — if Iran and IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano, along with his Western clients, are able to come to an accord on reducing tensions between Iran and its critics over the coming weeks, that would, of course, be a welcome result for all sides and for the world generally. However, such a result will only realistically be produced through a negotiated plan that meets the fundamental requirements of both Iran and the West. That agreement will require compromises on both sides, and will undoubtedly include Iranian retention of its essential uranium enrichment capabilities and a continuation of enrichment activities within Iran.

There is no realistic prospect that the IAEA and the West will succeed in dictating to Iran the arbitrary and unreasonable terms that they have laid out in previous IAEA Board of Governors decisions and UNSC resolutions, including most problematically the complete cessation of uranium enrichment by Iran. Iran has made it perfectly clear, and most analysts agree, that this stated objective of Western institutional escalation and sanctions will not be a part of a negotiated final settlement.

Iran may indeed agree to produce more information for the IAEA. It may also agree to a broader list of facilities within Iran to be inspected by the IAEA . It may even agree to other confidence-building measures, such as re-implementation of the IAEA Additional Protocol, suspension of enrichment to 20 percent purity within Iran, and the export of 20 percent enriched stockpiles out of the country. But this is likely to be the extent of Iran’s concessions.

But again, the reason Iran ceased implementing the Additional Protocol in the first place was the Western sanctions program itself. And as for the increased information sharing, inspections list, and the other confidence building measures – had the institutional escalation and sanctions program not been chosen by the West it is very likely that Iranian cooperation could have been secured on these points simply through intelligent and creative diplomatic means.

So, with this broadened view of the effect of the Western sanctions program against Iran, let us return to the original question: have Western sanctions had an influence on Iran’s actions and on the development of the crisis between Iran and the West? Yes. And that influence has been to significantly deepen and prolong the crisis, and to produce the current negative diplomatic environment in which a simple return to negotiations can be heralded as a major positive step.

Did the sanctions bring Iran to the negotiating table? No. They are the reason Iran pulled back from the table to begin with. Will the sanctions produce what the IAEA and the West have stated as their objective: the complete cessation of uranium enrichment by Iran? Definitely not.

In light of this more comprehensive view of the effect of Western sanctions, the current crowing about the success of the sanctions program by US officials should be replaced by a sober re-evaluation of the West’s mishandling of the dispute with Iran from the beginning, and hopefully some lessons learned about ways to better handle future nuclear disputes.

For this purpose, I would recommend to the consideration of US officials Professor Stephen Walt’s excellently parsimonious and accurate explanation of the imprudence of current macro-trends in US policy toward arms control diplomacy — into which US policy and diplomacy on Iranian sanctions, unfortunately, perfectly fits.

In a March 2012 post on his blog at the website of Foreign Policy magazine, Walt makes this profound observation:

In short, instead of “arms control” being the product of mutual negotiation, as it was in the Cold War, it now consists of the United States making demands and ramping up pressure to get weak states to comply. Instead of being primarily a diplomatic process aimed at eliciting mutually beneficial cooperation (which might also help ameliorate mutual suspicions with current adversaries), arms control has become a coercive process designed to produce capitulation. This approach may have worked in a few cases . . . but its overall track record is paltry . . . [E]ven a country as powerful as the United States cannot simply dictate to others . . . and a disdain for genuine diplomacy (as opposed to merely issuing ultimatums and imposing sanctions) is getting in the way of potential deals that could reduce the risk of proliferation, dampen the danger of war, and enable U.S. leaders to turn their attention to other priorities. Being the world’s #1 power confers many advantages, but it can also be a potent source of blind and counterproductive arrogance.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


No tags available

Leave a Comment

Comments for this post are closed


Thomaz Santos says

May 26, 2012

Professor Joyner,

Great text, and with a line of reasoning that I haven't seen yet concerning the Iranian nuclear program. As a professor of International Law and International Relations, yesterday I took part in a radio debate on whether or not we should trust in the Iranian claim that its nuclear program is peaceful (since I'm in Brazil, the program was in Portuguese, so I don't think many people would be able to listen). My argument was that, since according to US intel from 2011, Iran currently doesn't have the "tools", so to say, to build nuclear weapons, the program can't be anything but peaceful or at least non-military. Now I'm wondering if my argument actually holds water. What do you think? Once again, I really enjoyed your post.

Kind regards,

Thomaz Santos

Dan Joyner says

May 27, 2012

Hi Thomaz,
Thanks for your kind words. Regarding whether Iran currently has the capacity to build a nuclear weapon, I think the current expert consensus is that they do not. But a separate question is whether they have a militarily oriented development program ongoing. On that question there is more debate. The US intel community still officially says that Iran stopped its weapons program back in 2003, and I think that is the general expert consensus. But questions remain, and that is the focus of the November 2011 IAEA report, that lays out alleged evidence of possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear program. I wrote a different op-ed about that report at, which you can find at:
Hope this is helpful.

Hossein Sadat says

May 28, 2012

I have also to express my sincere appreciation to Prof Joyner for this and other writings he has devoted to legal and factual aspects of the Iranian Nuclear Programme. In fact, the international legal scholar community was not too much active on this topic and. In general, Iran’s activities were not subject to assessment based on facts and laws; it was rather subject to appreciation by wills and wants.

The so-called international community not only on this subject, but also on many other occasions did not treat Iran independently and fair according to its rights under international law. One may refer to Iraq’s invasion against Iran or use of chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers and civilians during the same war for almost 4 years in which the international community had no due reactions and actions.

The subject under consideration here is another example. Up to now; most of the decisions adopted in the context of international organizations (IAEA or UN) were not respecting facts and laws. Dan has explained to us some of the irregularities in his notes here (http://gjil.org/wp-content/uploads/archives/43.2/zsx00212000225.PDF) and here (http://jurist.org/forum/2011/11/dan-joyner-iaea-report.php). He has reached to the conclusion that Iran’s legal views, comparing to the opposing views, “has been mostly correct in its interpretation of the NPT, interpretation of its IAEA safeguard obligations, and interpretation of what the IAEA board of governors has done.” (http://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/default/files/public/Meetings/Meeting%20Transcripts/080312dalton.pdf)

Iran has repeatedly announced his legal views on its nuclear programme. See among other here (http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Documents/Infcircs/2011/infcirc833.pdf) and here (http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Documents/Infcircs/2008/infcirc724.pdf), but less or no attention or reaction from other sides. In fact, the reporting of Iran’s dossier from IAEA to the SC was aiming to dismantling Iran’s legal arguments (See: http://www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=viewArticle&code=20060326&articleId=2177) and could be considered an arbitrary decision. For a comprehensive analytical perspective, see here http://zarif.net/Articles/Columbia%20JIA.pdf. The resolutions in the SC also adopted without taking into account the facts and findings, for instance the final admittance of Iran’s claims by the IAEA in this report (http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Documents/Board/2008/gov2008-4.pdf)

It is alleged that Iran might have a military nuclear programme. The information and evidence adducing this allegation was not presented to the public, including to Iran. I am quite sure, Dan knows that there is no challenge inspection in the IAEA, as it is for instance in the OPCW. What the IAEA has reach was only that “the information to be, overall, credible.” It is not clear that under such low level of certainty, what burden is on the shoulder of Iran. It is an established principle of international law that “claims against a State involving charges of exceptional gravity must be proved by evidence that is fully conclusive” (cf. Corfu Channel (United Kingdom v. Albania), Judgment, I.C.J. Reports 1949, p. 17 and Genocide Judgment 2007, para 209. The IAEA has repeatedly declared that “continues to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material”.

Hossein Sadat says

May 28, 2012

In the context of the note written by Prof Joyner, one may remind the statement by former Iranian representative to the UN after the adoption of first SC resolution (1696):

So, it is pertinent to ask: What is the motive
behind this long-standing urge of some permanent
members to bring Iran before the Security Council?
And what is the current rush? Is it anything but
pressure and coercion? I would suggest that this
approach will not lead to any productive outcome and
that in fact it can only exacerbate the situation.


Dan Joyner says

May 29, 2012

Your kind words are very much appreciated, Hossain. Thank you.