It is tempting to call this past week’s possible deal between Iran and the United States an exercise in futility. But it is also a lesson in the economic concept of utility, the relative values someone puts on different goods. The deal, according to the details released so far, will substantially weaken the U.S.’s sanctions against Iran, possibly securing the president a reputation for diplomatic goodwill and engagement, while dismantling no centrifuges, destroying no enriched uranium, and securing no guarantee that the country will end or slow most of its nuclear programs. In order for our president to be considering such a deal, he must consider the former to be of vastly more personal and national utility than the latter.
The president and vice president boasted during the 2012 campaign that a comprehensive program of sanctions (which both of them repeatedly opposed) was strangling Iran’s nuclear program. Those measures have indeed brought the Iranian economy to a halt, forcing the regime to acknowledge even to its own people in Persian that its economy is stalled. But an economic freeze is not a nuclear freeze (just ask North Korea). It did force the Iranians to the table, begging for relief — but now the Obama administration is considering a deal that pays in the president’s preferred currency: diplomatic plaudits, not security.
In fact, so highly does the Obama administration prize a deal that they have already begun easing sanctions by omission: The Treasury Department has slowed the rate at which it designates new corporations Iran is using to evade sanctions. Further, the sanctions relief in the mooted deal would strip the West of its key sources of leverage, because loosening the flow of oil and gold would allow Iran’s economy to revive. While negotiators have said the core restrictions on Iranian trade aren’t up for negotiation yet, new loopholes will be enough to embolden Iran and restore some of its strength. And the more cosmetic, ostensibly humanitarian measures, like the trade of planes and cars, would enrich and equip the country’s real guardians, the Revolutionary Guard. Negotiators have long claimed that plane parts are necessary to improve aviation safety in Iran, but past concessionary shipments have quickly been diverted to military purposes.
A good deal may not have even been possible, since Iran’s new, superficially more conciliatory president, Hassan Rouhani, has never held the reins in Iran. His willingness to negotiate, even if genuine, is meaningless unless the Supreme Leader comes to a similar conclusion. This has become more obvious as each stage of Rouhani’s charm offensive — overhyped by the Western media in the first place — has been undercut by more powerful elements of Iran’s regime.
It is possible that a continued program of sanctions — with Congress continuing to close more loopholes — will finally force Rouhani to the table with the backing he actually needs. Given Iran’s flagrant violations of near-unanimous U.N. Security Council resolutions restricting its nuclear activities, such policies are necessary until it is willing to come clean about its programs and agree to dismantle them. Every lapse in sanctions, especially in return for minimal concessions, gives a proliferator more of its most precious commodity, time. If the U.S. is at the table in earnest today, it means not only that the president holds a dangerous set of utility preferences, but also that he does not understand those of his opponent.