Last November, hundreds of cheering supporters greeted Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the Tehran airport when he returned from Geneva after negotiating a deal to ease economic sanctions against his country.
To most of the world, it seemed the jubilant Iranians were celebrating the deal itself. But Robert Einhorn, a former State Department official who helped craft the sanctions, sensed that their elation was about something even bigger.
“They were cheering because they saw pictures of their foreign minister shaking hands with the American secretary of state and they thought that this was the beginning of the end of their isolation — the beginning of the restoration of their respectability in the world,” Einhorn told The Diplomat during an interview in his office at the Brookings Institution, where he is now a senior fellow in the think tank’s Foreign Policy Program. “They want to be world citizens; they don’t want to be outlaws. The desire to end this isolation, together with the international sanctions, is what really motivated them.”
Einhorn would know. Before arriving at Brookings in May 2013, Einhorn served four years as special adviser on nonproliferation and arms control to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, with an emphasis on policy toward Iran and North Korea. He played a leading role in the formulation and execution of international sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program — the very sanctions that are widely credited with bringing Tehran to the negotiating table to cinch a landmark six-month deal to try to resolve Western concerns over the country’s nuclear ambitions.
“That meant traveling to a lot of key countries — China, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Turkey and so forth — to build what became a very effective coalition to implement sanctions against Iran,” he recalled.
Einhorn has also helped shape the Obama administration’s overall approach to nonproliferation, working diplomatic contacts with China, Russia and elsewhere, and addressed nuclear security and stability challenges in South Asia. His portfolio at the State Department was so expansive that after his departure, his position was dissolved and split up among several high-ranking diplomats.
Between 2001 and 2009, Einhorn was a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where he directed the Proliferation Prevention Program. Before coming to CSIS, Einhorn was assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation, deputy assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, and a member of the State Department Policy Planning Staff. From 1972 and 1986, he held various positions at the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and served as representative to the strategic arms reduction talks with the Soviet Union.
“Early on, I was involved in kind of classical arms control issues, but at the end of the 1980s, with [former Soviet Premier Mikhail] Gorbachev and the end of the Soviet Union, it became clear to me that arms control was going to assume relatively less importance in our national security and nonproliferation and nuclear security was going to be more important,” Einhorn explained.
The career global arms expert said the Iranian deal reached in late November is an important first step in convincing the regime to abandon any plans it might have to become a nuclear weapons state. The agreement halts and rolls back portions of Iran’s nuclear program for six months in return for modest sanctions relief to allow the so-called P5+1 countries — the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany — to negotiate a long-term agreement by July 20.
Specifically, Iran has agreed to halt enrichment of uranium above 5 percent purity and dilute its stockpile of enriched uranium approaching 20 percent purity, which is considered close to weapons-grade fuel; it can continue to enrich to a low level of 3.5 percent. Iran can also keep its existing centrifuges but agreed not to install any new centrifuges, start up any that were not already operating, or build new enrichment facilities. It will also allow regular inspections of its nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
In return, the world powers agreed to suspend certain sanctions on trade in gold and precious metals, Iran’s automotive sector and its petrochemical exports. Total sanctions relief is estimated at between $6 billion and $7 billion — $4.2 billion of which is Iranian oil revenue frozen in foreign banks that will be released in installments throughout the six months if Iran abides by terms of the accord.
Einhorn stressed that the major sanctions against Iran — oil and banking restrictions that have devastated its economy — remain firmly in place.
“What we’re getting in the interim deal is essentially a freeze in their program and the Iranians get some sanctions relief, but in reality it’s very modest sanctions relief,” Einhorn said. “All crucial sanctions will remain in place. The sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy are the banking and oil sanctions. Those will remain in place.”
That hasn’t appeased congressional critics who contend the deal was premature and lets Iran off the hook, just when the seven-year sanctions regime was beginning to have its desired effect of choking Iran’s economy and forcing its government to make dramatic concessions.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, told CNN that “we had the chance to deliver a body blow” and didn’t take the shot. “The sanctions actually worked but this interim deal gives the Iranians $7 billion in cash and leaves in place one of the most sophisticated enrichment programs around,” Graham said.
Both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate have banded together to support a bill, spearheaded by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J), that would slap a full slate of sanctions on Iran if the current talks fail. “Should Iran breach this [existing six-month] agreement or fail to negotiate in good faith, the penalties it would face are severe,” Menendez wrote in a Washington Post op-ed in January.
President Obama has vowed to veto the bill, saying it would torpedo the first real diplomatic opening to reverse Iran’s nuclear advancement and characterizing it as a march toward war (hard-liners in Iran have said they would boost enrichment to 60 percent if the bill passes).
Einhorn says the Menendez bill could unravel years of work in getting Iran to agree to any concessions.
“What’s at stake is undermining the best opportunity we have to stop Iran’s nuclear program,” he said. “Supporters of this bill should ask themselves what happens if inadvertently their efforts result in the scuttling of these negotiations. In that case, what options do they have for resolving this issue? I’m sure most of the sponsors of this bill are well meaning. They wish to give the administration additional leverage. But I think most of them are mistaken.”
Einhorn says the current deal, while not perfect, is far better than the alternatives of regime change or military strikes. He concedes that it does not dismantle Iran’s nuclear infrastructure or significantly lengthen Iran’s nuclear breakout timeline. But he argues that those are goals that must be achieved in a comprehensive final agreement.
“I think essentially what we’re getting is a very promising first step toward a deal,” he told us. “This imminent agreement is not meant to be seen as a self-contained deal. It’s a stepping stone, a down payment if you will, to a final deal. You can’t really draw any conclusions from this interim agreement.
“What it does is freeze in place Iran’s nuclear program — it halts further advances in that program in all significant respects,” Einhorn continued. “By doing that it buys us time and space to negotiate a comprehensive deal. One of the concerns a lot of people have had is that the U.S. would be negotiating a final deal while Iran was making progress on its program. The fear was that Iran would string us along, make progress on their program, and we’d never come to an agreement — that essentially they would use the time to advance their program under the cover of negotiations. The administration thought it was critical to halt their program right where it was during the negotiations of a final deal. I think they’ve done that very well.”
In fact, Einhorn said he was surprised by just how much the administration was able to extract from Tehran.
“The first-step deal convincingly and comprehensively closes the door to progress in Iran’s nuclear program during the six-month period…. stopping production of near-20 percent enriched uranium, banning the operation or further installation of advanced centrifuges, and preventing the fueling and operation of the Arak reactor. But it goes well beyond that,” he wrote in a Brookings blog posting, delving into the finer points of the agreement.
Among other things, it subjects Iran to daily monitoring that goes far beyond Iran’s current safeguards with the IAEA in return for a modest easing of sanctions. That relief represents a small fraction of the toll ongoing sanctions will cost Iran’s economy — $30 billion in lost oil revenue over the next six months alone, Einhorn said. “Also unexpected was the requirement to eliminate altogether the stocks of near-20 percent enriched uranium in the gaseous form most readily transformed into weapons-grade uranium,” he added. “Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s famous redline required Iran to stay below 250 kilograms of near-20 percent enriched uranium in the form that could be boosted rapidly to weapons-grade. The deal will drop Iran to zero…. Few if any stones were left unturned in preventing Iran from advancing its program while negotiations are under way on a final deal.”
Einhorn, unassuming and easygoing in his Diplomat interview, has a reputation as a pit bull in nonproliferation negotiations. When representatives of South Korea, a favored U.S. ally, came to Washington to discuss extending the country’s bilateral civil nuclear agreement last year, talks broke down and the South Koreans pointed the finger at Einhorn. The Koreans wanted to enrich uranium and reprocess spent fuel rods, but because of an international ban on such enrichment (because the same technologies can be used to make nuclear weapons), Seoul was forced to import raw uranium and then send it to a foreign firm for processing into usable nuclear fuel. Einhorn and the American negotiators were unmoved by South Korea’s protests about costs and inconvenience, leading the country’s national newspaper, The Chosun Ilbo, to label Einhorn as “the non-proliferations Taliban.”
Einhorn chuckled softly when reminded of the insult, and recalled a similar reaction from an Indian journalist who covered his dealings with that South Asian nuclear-armed nation.
“A well-known Indian journalist named Raja Mohan would describe me as Ayatollah Einhorn,” he recalled. “He accused me of being a fundamentalist of nonproliferation, as a kind of unyielding zealot. It wasn’t accurate, but it indicates how I was often perceived.
“When I went to China with [former Secretaries of State] Madeleine Albright and Warren Christopher, I would be the spear on nonproliferation issues,” Einhorn said. “If I look at what I’ve done in nonproliferation, it really has been dealing with the hardest problems.”
The longtime arms expert said working with rogue states that aren’t superpowers is different than the days of the U.S.-Soviet Unions arms race.
“Dealing with these hard cases is very different than dealing with the Soviet Union on arms control,” Einhorn said. “Both we and the Soviets had lots of nuclear weapons, and it was in our mutual interest to reduce them in a balanced way to create greater stability on both sides. But with North Korea, for example, it’s a totally asymmetrical negotiation. We’re asking them to stop doing things they don’t want to do.
“Nonproliferation, almost by definition, with the word ‘non,’ you’re trying to persuade countries not to do what they’ve decided is in there own national interest,” he said. “Whether they have correctly calculated what is in their interest is another story. They believe that pursuing these is in their national interests. It’s a hard job.”
One of the most strenuous — and obvious — objections Einhorn and other U.S. nonproliferation experts hear from states with nuclear weapons ambitions is that the United States is the only country to have ever actually used nukes in warfare.
“Lots of countries have detonated nuclear weapons, but we’re the only ones who have used one in war,” Einhorn conceded, referring to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan at the end of World War II.
So how does Einhorn justify America’s insistence that other countries don’t acquire or develop these weapons of mass destruction?
“We say, ‘Look, first of all, that was a different time,’” he told us. “Now that the Cold War is over, we don’t need these huge arsenals, so for the last 20 years we’ve been working to reduce them. We’re now at a pretty small fraction of what we had at the height of the Cold War.
“We say we’ve learned the mistakes of our ways and we’re reducing our capabilities,” Einhorn added. “We’re heading in this direction and you’re heading in the opposite direction.”
That argument alone won’t be enough to convince the leadership in Tehran — which also cites Israel’s widely presumed nuclear weapons arsenal as an example of the West’s double standard on the issue — to abandon its nuclear program, which is a source of national pride among Iranians, even those who oppose the ruling government.
Einhorn admits there are formidable obstacles in the talks ahead, namely reconciling Iran’s desire to pursue what it says is its inalienable “right to enrich” for peaceful, civilian purposes, with the international community’s desire to keep Tehran from nuclear weapons breakout capability. Yet he sounded optimistic about reaching a final agreement. In the meantime, Einhorn rejects criticism that the interim deal will encourage the world to resume trade and commerce with Iran, although he conceded that’s what the Iranians probably want.
“I think their hope is that this will create a psychological shift in the world,” he said. “I think they’re hoping with this initial measure that countries and companies will be less reticent to engage with Iran in areas that are permitted under the sanctions regime. They’re hoping it will create a kind of momentum even if the actual sanctions easing is quite modest.”
But Einhorn predicted that international companies are not going to plunge back into Iran until they see what the six-month agreement produces.
“Companies are not going to want to conclude new deals with Iran for a six-month period — make new investments and all of that — if after six months there is no final deal,” he said. “I think most companies are going to sit back and wait to see whether there is a final agreement that removes the sanctions. They may have preliminary discussions with the Iranians and see what can be done, but they’re not going to make business decisions before they know the sanctions are really going to be lifted and they’re not going to know that for some time. They’re not going to dive right in.
“And the concerns that sanctions over six months are going to erode are overblown,” Einhorn argued.
While sanctions appear to have forced Iran to the bargaining table, some international experts remain unconvinced that they are an effective tool for dealing with rogue, stubborn nations. Einhorn said he suspects that the Iranian response — even if it took seven long years — will help bolster the argument for sanctions instead of military force in future global conflicts.
“I do think the Iran experience will give a boost” to sanctions, he said. “I think frankly the key motivating factor [in getting Iran to the table] was the economic sanctions. I don’t know the likelihood that their audience placed on the U.S. or Israel using military force, but I do know they find the economic sanctions to be very onerous. It’s crippled their economy, and they can’t have much of a future while they have these sanctions in place.”
But what may work in forcing action from one country, may not work for another.
“For example, sanctions haven’t been decisive in North Korea. Why? Because North Korea’s material needs are tiny,” Einhorn explained. “Even if you can cut North Korea’s economic interactions with the rest of the world, as long as they have one big benefactor — China — who is prepared to fund much of its fuel and keep them afloat no matter what, then sanctions aren’t going to be decisive.
“Iran doesn’t have one big benefactor who is prepared to bail them out,” Einhorn added. “Iran has a vulnerability that North Korea doesn’t have: oil.”
The timing of the sanctions also worked, as other oil-producing nations made up the difference and unconventional forms of drilling helped unearth vast reserves of untapped oil and gas.
“We happened to impose their oil sanctions when the Saudis were boosting production, and at a time when Iraq, Libya and North America had boosted production,” he said. “At a time when we were asking countries to reduce their purchases, we were able to tell them, ‘You don’t have to reduce your consumption. You can buy oil elsewhere,’ and that’s what happened.”
Going back to the theme he outlined at the outset of his interview, Einhorn reiterated his belief that social and political pressures coming from within Iran’s youthful population helped push the country’s leaders to the bargaining table. The election of Hassan Rouhani as the country’s moderate new president was also a major factor, he said, despite the fact that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the ultimate decision maker in the country.
“The Rouhani election had a huge effect,” Einhorn said. “Rouhani is not the ultimate ruler, but what his election showed the Supreme Leader was that his people wanted a change. They were fed up with the economic mismanagement of [former President] Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, they were fed up with international sanctions, they wanted change. [Khamenei] has to manage various political pressures, and I think he saw that if Iran wanted to become a great country, it could not do that without significant change.”
Einhorn also noted that at one time not that long ago, before the 1979 Iranian Revolution that ushered in clerical rule in Iran, the United States and Iran were friends.
“It’s not inconceivable that that could happen again, but it’s going to take a while,” he said. “There are a lot of layers of mistrust that have to be overcome. The first step is the nuclear deal. If that could be done conscientiously then I think it can open the door to other types of engagement. But there is a lot of skepticism on the American side. People want to take this one step at a time.”
About the Author
Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.