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

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

Bennett Ramberg
As Congress weighs the Iran nuclear agreement, confidence that Tehran will comply must be high on its agenda. Because the revolutionary regime has a history of cheating on nuclear deals, the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany have tried to ensure compliance with 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?

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.

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.

This article was originally published by Reuters.