What If Iran Misses the Deadline to Lift Sanctions?

A military truck carrying a missile and a picture of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is seen during a parade marking the anniversary of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), in Tehran September 22. Khamenei has instructed Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to meet a number of preconditions before Rouhani can lift sanctions and implement the nuclear deal. Raheb Homavandi/Reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's letter to President Hassan Rouhani authorizing him to implement the nuclear deal was problematic from the West's standpoint—but also from Rouhani's.

Parliamentary elections are coming early this spring, and both Rouhani and his political opponents are hoping to spin the deal to their benefit. Rouhani and his team have been promising quick economic improvements. His adversaries are already saying that the deal has brought Iran nothing.

The president needs sanctions lifted quickly. The supreme leader, however, just ordered him to move slowly. That could seriously handicap him in the upcoming elections and create pressure in the West to ease sanctions prematurely.

The nuke deal requires Iran to make a number of significant changes to its nuclear program before any sanctions are suspended. Iran must, in particular, physically alter the Arak heavy water reactor and either downblend or sell most of its stocks of enriched uranium.

Western officials are already worrying publicly about Rouhani's promises to get this all done by the end of the year, which will be difficult for technical reasons.

Khamenei has instructed Rouhani to meet a number of preconditions before fulfilling these obligations, however. "Measures to renovate the Arak facility," he wrote, "will begin only when a decisive and secure agreement has been signed for an alternative plan with sufficient guarantees for its implementation." The shipment of Iran's enriched uranium to another country, he added, must also await a similar agreement. And it must be gradual and phased.

Rouhani is unlikely to be able to meet these requirements and get sanctions relief in time to show tangible benefits before the elections—at least, not if the West holds him strictly to the text of the agreement.

Why is the supreme leader imposing such stipulations?

He may want to harm Rouhani politically. He has already weighed in against the president on a number of important issues, including insisting that the Iranian parliament review the nuclear deal over Rouhani's objections. Khamenei more likely wants to retain leverage against the West and the U.S. in particular, which he firmly believes intends to violate the agreement (even under President Obama, whom he does not trust).

The supreme leader is determined to avoid being victimized by a deal that he describes as "stricken with ambiguities, structural weaknesses, and numerous matters that can lead to great losses" for Iran.

We can't allow Rouhani's problems to become ours. Many supporters of the deal see Rouhani as our best hope for somehow moderating the Iranian regime and are distressed by the possibility that his excessive promises will harm his prospects. Setting aside the question of whether Rouhani is our friend in Tehran, we must avoid the trap of yielding on the sequencing of sanctions relief with Iranian technical compliance in order to help him out.

Both Rouhani and Khamenei are shrewd enough to know that the supreme leader has just given the president a card to play with us, as well as a problem of his own.

The U.S. should refuse to play the game at all. We must insist that Iran meet all of its technical commitments before it gains any sanctions relief. We will otherwise launch ourselves into a re-negotiation of the deal as it is implemented that can only hurt our interests even more.

Frederick W. Kagan, author of the 2007 report Choosing Victory: A Plan for Success in Iraq, is one of the intellectual architects of the successful "surge" strategy in Iraq. He is the director of AEI's Critical Threats Project and a former professor of military history at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.