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One Unanswered Question Remains For Obama’s Iran Deal

Discussions of the recent US-brokered framework for an agreement with Iran acknowledge the mystery of one relentless question: What will happen if Iran fails to make good on promises to curtail its nuclear program?

After all, America’s recent track record on red lines isn’t so great, what if this line too were crossed?

Various “fact sheets” on the deal, circulated by the American and Iranian governments, have noticeably diverged on the timeline of U.S. sanctions relief once a final deal is signed by the final June 30 deadline. Likewise, Americans seem unable to agree on when and how sanctions would “snap back” into place against a cheating Iran. (RELATED: 5 Ways The Iran Deal Could Go Sour, And One Sign Of Hope)

In an interview published Monday with deal-skeptical expert Michael Doran, Vox.com’s Max Fisher mentioned “this big question mark of what happens if Iran gets caught cheating,” acknowledging that “I honestly don’t feel like I know what the answer is.”

In response to the question, Doran pointed out that “One of the greatest advantages of sanctions as a coercive tool is their effect over time. Dismantling this thing… is kind of like taking money out of your retirement account early.”

Doran also criticized President Barack Obama’s apparent unwillingness to step away from the negotiating table in light of an unsatisfactory deal. “Three presidents have said that a nuclear weapon by the Iranians is absolutely unacceptable and we will use all options to make sure that won’t happen. If that’s our policy, then we have to implement it.” (RELATED: Is This The World’s Most Passive-Aggressive Statement On Iran?)

But without proposing a definitive alternative to sanctions relief, Doran suggested, “if [Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah] Ali Khamenei was put before a choice of ‘Your nuclear program or absolutely crippling, debilitating economic sanctions,’ he would think twice. I think if he were put before a choice of ‘Your nuclear program or severe military strikes,’ he would think twice.”

The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin has also pointed to the mystery at the heart of the Iran question. On Sunday, she noted remarks by Obama in which he backed “creative negotiations” toward an agreement, rather than the “phased sanctions relief” that Secretary of State John Kerry has supported. That way, Obama said, the U.S. and Iran could “find formulas that get to our main concerns while allowing the other side to make a presentation to their body politic that is more acceptable.”

Rubin emphasized that if immediate sanction relief was implemented, Iran would have access to billions of dollars in frozen assets. The move would then worsen the feasibility of any “snapback” in sanctions if U.S. inspectors detected Iranian cheating, since those assets would already be in the hands of the Iranian regime.

In an apparent bid to resolve the confusion, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest stated in Monday’s press briefing that “in exchange [for Iranian compliance], the United States and broader international community would take steps to phase in sanctions relief.”

When asked for clarification that no U.S.-backed deal would lift sanctions immediately, Earnest said, “we want to leave the underlying architecture of our sanctions in place,” so that if necessary, the administration “can move quickly at the stroke of a pen” to restore Iran’s standing to the status quo. Nevertheless, as he acknowledged himself, the existing structure of U.S. sanctions is “extremely complicated,” which leaves it unclear just how that “stroke of a pen” would bring sanctions back into effect.

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