US envoy to Mideast: Washington must be ready to step up Iran sanctions

We must not let Tehran off the hook, says Dennis Ross at Jewish Agency for Israel's 2013 Assembly.

Dennis Ross in Jerusalem 370 (photo credit: Steve Linde)
Dennis Ross in Jerusalem 370
(photo credit: Steve Linde)
The United States and its allies must be prepared to escalate sanctions against Tehran if it continues to build its nuclear program, while making clear to the Iranians that they will not be “let off the hook” by the agreement being negotiated in Geneva, former US envoy to the Middle East Dennis Ross said on Sunday.
Addressing the Jewish Agency for Israel’s 2013 Assembly at a Jerusalem hotel, Ross – who is board co-chairman of the Jewish People Policy Institute – argued that Israeli fears about the agreement could be assuaged.
“The chief concern here is that the Iranians are going to be let off the hook,” he said.
“So the answer to that is to do a number of things. One, make it very clear in this intervening period, we will go to great lengths to plug any loopholes that begin to emerge in terms of sanctions enforcement. By the way, one of the things we’ve done very well is to intensify the efforts to ensure that the Iranians can’t evade any of the sanctions, which they did for many years.
“Two, you make it clear that, in fact, sanctions are going to be intensified. This is a sixmonth time period. There should be no misunderstanding.
If there’s no deal, sanctions are going to be intensified,” he said.
Ross suggested one option would be to adopt additional rigorous sanctions but put them on hold and warn that they would be applied if the Iranians did not honor the agreement.
He noted that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu considered the emerging deal a bad one, but said there were steps that could be taken to ensure that it was a good one.
“You may have noticed in the last few days, shall we say, there was a bit of turbulence in terms of how to look at the negotiations that were going on in Geneva, which did not produce an agreement last night, but which did leave everyone saying there has been progress made toward an agreement. The prime minister of Israel made it clear that he thought the deal that was about to happen was a bad deal,” Ross said.
Ultimately, though, the test would be in whether the Iranians “roll back their nuclear program.”
“My point is if the concern is that the pressure is going to be eased to let them off the hook, there are steps that can be taken even now that make it very clear that won’t be the case,” he said. “The objective remains the same objective, and the key is rollback. The measure has to be, in the end, if there’s going to be an agreement at the end of the day, Iran cannot be in a position that it can break out at a time of its choosing.
“The restrictions imposed have to be extensive enough and the rollback in their program has to be significant enough that in a sense they’re pushed back to where they were several years ago with the kind of transparency that would make it highly improbable that they do [continue with their nuclear program], but with a certainty that they would know that when they get caught if they did, there would be plenty of time to do something about it,” Ross said.
The US and the other world powers negotiating with Iran “share the objective of Iran not being able to produce a nuclear weapon,” he said.
“There’s no gap in terms of the strategic objective. There can be logically a question about the tactics of how you get there. The agreement that was emerging was not an agreement that was not a final agreement. It was supposed to be a first-step agreement. The members of the P5+1 felt that they could achieve an endgame result right now, which is to roll back the Iranian nuclear program to the point where the Iranians would not be in a position where they could have a breakout capability.
The disagreements that arose over the weekend in Geneva, according to Ross, “had to do with what the price you had to pay to produce a cap on the Iranian nuclear program at this stage.
“Part of the thinking on the part of those negotiating is that the Iranian nuclear program is continuing to progress, and it’s going to take maybe another six months or so to try to reach an endgame agreement. But you don’t want the Iranians to continue to progress while you’re doing that. So the idea was, ‘Let’s put put a cap on the program right now.’ “That meant, inter alia, no new centrifuges and the suspension of 20 percent uranium enrichment, and in exchange, there would not be a changing of the structure and the content of the architecture of the sanctions regime, but to allow the easing of it which would allow the Iranians to gain access to some of the frozen assets they had in foreign banks.
“There was some question as to how much that would be. Some thought it would be a few million dollars, some thought it would be higher,” he said. “The concern here in Israel was that you are going to send a message about easing the sanctions regime, even if you say the structure is intact. Psychologically, once you begin to breach that, you’re going to find all those governments and all those in the private sector wanting to do business with the Iranians saying, you know what, the signs are changing. And if the Iranians see that people are going back to doing business with them, they can say, you know what, we don’t have to make further concessions, we’ll find a way out of this, and the pressure is off of us. The Iranians would be off the hook.”
Ross stressed it was “good news” that the international community had succeeded in isolating Iran.
“To put this into perspective in terms of the sanctions regime, in 2009, when the Obama administration came in, Iran’s overall production of oil was 4.2 million barrels a day, and its export of oil was 2.6 million barrels a day. You know what they exported last month? Six hundred and fifty thousand barrels of oil,” he said.
Referring to Iran’s new president, Ross noted that “Hassan Rouhani has a close relationship with the supreme leader, but he ran [for the presidency] against the policies that produced international isolation and sanctions, and he said he would get the sanctions relieved.
“Now whether you think he’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing, or a wolf in wolf’s clothing, or whether you think he’s going to eat the wolf, whatever it is, he clearly is there because they feel the pressure,” he said.
Ross, who also serves as counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, advocated what he called an “automaticity response,” which he acknowledged was problematic.
“At the end of the day, it can’t just be a case of economic pressures. Economic pressures bring [the Iranians] to the table,” Ross said.