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The Obama administration says the proposed nuclear agreement with Iran is a significant improvement over the status quo. Critics say the opposite — that no deal would be better.
A recent exchange between Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly and Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee pivots around this point.
O’Reilly argued that the alternative to an agreement was war, which Huckabee dismissed as an Obama talking point. To Huckabee, the better play was to continue and strengthen economic sanctions on Iran, forcing them into a position of weakness.
O’Reilly equally dismissed that idea.
"Russia and China told us if we had walked away from this deal that they were not going to obey the sanctions any longer," O’Reilly said.
Huckabee said that wasn’t "for sure." But O’Reilly doubled down.
"They absolutely said pretty clearly," O’Reilly replied.
Russia and China certainly could knock the teeth out of any economic sanctions if they pulled out. Did they signal those intentions to the United States?
As part of the nuclear agreement, the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany agreed to phase out various economic sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy in exchange for concessions in Iran’s nuclear program.
Lifting sanctions against Iran was a top concern for Russia, said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in April.
"In general, we are principled opponents of the use of methods of pressure in international relations, of restricting lawful rights of states in selfish, lucrative interests," Lavrov said. "It is a short-sighted policy, which, as a rule, has a boomerang effect on its authors."
News articles cited by O'Reilly's staff highlight U.S. concern that if a deal was not reached, then some countries, including Russia, China and India, would no longer observe sanctions because they were not seen as a permanent solution. Experts share that view.
"It was unlikely the coalition supporting sanctions could have been kept together indefinitely to maintain pressure on Iran, and there was little appetite either domestically or internationally to use force to disable Iran’s nuclear program," said Francis Gavin, the Frank Stanton Professor in Nuclear Security Policy Studies in MIT’s Department of Political Science.
Vipin Narang, an MIT associate professor of political science and author of Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era, said, "A more stringent sanctions regime would have been virtually impossible to construct and sustain."
Obama repeated these concerns in April. "If it is perceived that we walked away from a fair deal that gives us assurances Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon, then those international sanctions will fray," he said. "And it won’t just be Russia or China. It will be some of our close allies."
In fact, Russia and China were barely acknowledging sanctions as they were.
The United States’ sanctions on Iran can be traced back to the 1979 hostage crisis, while sanctions by the United Nations go back to 2006. Additional sanctions have been placed on Iran since then by the United States, European Union and United Nations. Together, these sanctions affected Iran’s nuclear, missile, energy, shipping, transportation, and financial sectors, according to the Department of State website. The hope of these sanctions was to starve Iran of the resources it needed to proliferate its nuclear and missile programs, and encourage Iran to sit down for talks.
Before the Iran deal was even struck, both Russia and China had already ignored some of the U.S. and E.U. sanctions. Based on their past actions, it is unlikely that either country would have had a sudden change of heart and supported continued sanctions against Iran if the deal had fallen through. Russian leaders have said they only recognize the U.N. Security Council sanctions.
Richard Brennan, senior political scientist at the Rand Corporation, said even though he does not know of any explicit mention of Russia or China saying they would stop sanctions against Iran, O’Reilly’s "meaning is accurate."
Records of sanctions against Iran compiled by the Jewish Virtual Library show that in spite of the sanctions, both Russia and China have profited from Iranian oil, and Russia has continued to sell weapons to Iran.
O’Reilly said that Russia and China "absolutely said pretty clearly" they would not keep economic sanctions on Iran if the United States "walked away from the deal."
Russia and China certainly have given signals that they both wanted sanctions against Iran removed.
Both Russia and China have a history of ignoring sanctions that have been placed on Iran. Experts say that if the United States, one of the strongest supporters of these sanctions, had abandoned the deal, then it is likely that China, Russia and possibly other countries would have disregarded these sanctions.
O'Reilly is pushing the envelope when he said "absolutely" clear, as they haven't issued formal statements. But all of their actions indicate that what O'Reilly said is substantially accurate. We rate his claim Mostly True.
The O’Reilly Factor transcript, July 27, 2015, accessed via Nexis
U.S. News and World Report, "Mike Huckabee Doesn't Like the Iran Deal," July 27, 2015
The Wall Street Journal, "Possible Failure of Iran Nuclear Deal Divides U.S., Israel," March 30, 2015
The New York Times, "Obama Urges ‘Creative’ Talks to Bridge Divide With Iran on Sanctions," April 17, 2015
CNN, "A summary of sanctions against Iran," January 23, 2012
CNN, "Iran nuclear deal full of complex issues and moving parts," July 14, 2015
The White House, "Fact Sheet: Sanctions Related to Iran," July 31, 2012
The Jewish Virtual Library, "The Failure of Sanctions Against Iran," accessed July 29, 2015
U.S. Department of State, Iran Sanctions, accessed July 29, 2015
Asia Regional Integration Center, "Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)," accessed July 29, 2015
Brookings Institution, "The Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Japan: Moving Together to Reshape the Eurasian Community," January 28, 2008
Al Arabiya News, "The Shanghai Cooperation Organization waits for Iran," July 9, 2015
Email interview with Dana Klinghoffer, vice president of Fox News media relations, July 28, 2015
Phone interview with Richard Brennan, senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, July 29, 2015
Email interview with Michael O'Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, July 28, 2015
Email interview with Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, July 29, 2015
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