Could a ‘broken windows’ policing strategy work for the Iran deal?

August 25, 2015
Ministers and officials pose for a group picture at the United Nations building in Vienna

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, German Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier, European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization Ali Akbar Salehi, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammon, Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz (L to R) at the United Nations building in Vienna, July 14, 2015. REUTERS/Joe Klamar/Pool

With President Barack Obama likely to get the Iran nuclear agreement — his supporters can now sustain any presidential veto if the overall Senate rejects the deal — Congress should now focus on insuring that Tehran complies with all the terms. Because the revolutionary regime has a history of cheating on nuclear deals, the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany have already tried to guarantee Iran’s compliance by inserting a “snapback” of economic sanctions as a deterrent.

What defines noncompliance, however, remains unclear. Secretary of State John Kerry, for example, talks about “material” breaches. But what if Iran nibbles away at the margins of the deal, testing specific terms to find holes it can exploit?

Possibilities abound. What if Tehran claims points are open to interpretation? What if it provides an unconvincing explanation of residues of nuclear activity uncovered by the International Atomic Energy Agency?

The “what ifs” could go on and on. Which prompts the key question: What compliance threshold should the international community hold Iran to?

An Iranian operator monitors the nuclear power plant unit in Bushehr

An Iranian operator monitors the nuclear power plant unit in Bushehr, about 1,215 km (755 miles) south of Tehran, November 30, 2009. REUTERS/ISNA/Mehdi Ghasemi

Should it be a “broken windows” standard — with no tolerance for even minor infractions — that many U.S. police departments have used to discourage more serious crime? Or, ought the mullahs be granted leeway to avoid the risk of blowing up the entire deal? Or should determination be made on a case-by-case basis?

The natural inclination of diplomats is to work things out. Indeed, the Iran agreement allows for discussion, convening a joint commission of foreign ministers as well as consulting an advisory board.

But the process leaves a hole: Should all infractions be treated equally?  If not, what material violation should Washington and its partners use to justify snapback or more forceful measures if the attempt at dialogue fails?  Should the joint commission be convened each time a suspected infraction arises, however insignificant?

Or should the attitude be: It is not worth bickering over the “small” — save our political ammunition for something “‘big”?  Would such a policy encourage Iran to test the limits?  Or will failing to address the small things create a political firestorm in the United States that gives deal opponents, including Israel, grist to demand action of a military sort?

Broken-windows policing allows little leeway. Based on the scholarly writings of James Q Wilson and George L. Kelling, particularly their groundbreaking 1982 Atlantic Monthly essay, proponents argued that the failure of law enforcement to address petty crimes tripwires more serious infractions.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius talks to German Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier during a meeting with foreign ministers and representatives of United States, China, Britain, Russia and the European Union at a hotel in Vienna, Austria

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius talks to German Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier (L) during a meeting with foreign ministers and representatives of United States, China, Britain, Russia and the European Union during nuclear talks in Vienna, Austria July 10, 2015. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Over the years, however, the move from theory to implementation drew mixed reviews. Some police agencies found that a broken-windows strategy did reduce major crime rates. But others concluded the drop in crime reflected other factors, including the declining use of crack cocaine, high incarceration rates and an improving economic environment.

Even with this unclear record, could the broken-windows model help enforce the Iran deal? It might be worth a shot, given Tehran’s questionable history under more lenient approaches.

Consider, without the tough justice of a broken-windows approach, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the international community labored for years to get Iran to provide full nuclear transparency — which has yet to be achieved — and to curtail its nuclear program. Had the West pressed Iran more effectively earlier, Tehran might not have retained much of the reined-in nuclear activity under the July deal.

To assure the agreement’s integrity, the guarantors must come to a consensus whether strict application of a broken-windows approach, a modified interpretation customized for Iran or some other approach, deserves adoption to prevent Tehran’s gaming the accord. The United States and its partners should not delay in cobbling together a policy to ensure that politics does not overwhelm their decision-making at the moment of an infraction.

The time for them to begin forming a consensus is now. All the negotiators must strive to arrive at an understanding in the few months that remain before the deal is scheduled to enter into force.


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A points system may be advantageous. Lose 3 points for speeding, 5 points for traversing a red light etc. Allocation of 12 points renews every 12 months. Breach your 12 point allocation in 12 months – lose your licence for 12 months or select to keep driving but with a 3 year suspension looming for any further breaches. Driving Intoxicated – instant suspension. Gravitas obviously applies.

Posted by fyaox | Report as abusive

In the spirit of ‘J’ Sui Charlie’, Reuters should stop censoring perfectly valid and contrary opinions on its comments section. This screening of contrary opinion does nothing but perpetuate lazy journalism and opinion pieces like this one which peddle the same old and malicious accusations.

Posted by XZXZ | Report as abusive

XZXZ, spot on.
I’m a little tired of hearing AIPAC’s lobbyists promoting never ending sanctions and confrontation with those that the apartheid state of Israel does not like.

Posted by No_apartheid | Report as abusive