Panel that will police Iran for violations of nuclear agreement may include ... Russia, China, and Iran

Help me figure this out.

As part of the new agreement on sanctions snapback, suspected breaches by Iran would be taken up by a dispute-resolution panel, likely including the six powers and Iran, which would assess the allegations and come up with a non-binding opinion, the officials said.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would also continue regularly reporting on Iran’s nuclear program, which would provide the six powers and the Security Council with information on Tehran’s activities to enable them to assess compliance.

If Iran was found to be in non-compliance with the terms of the deal, then U.N. sanctions would be restored.

The officials did not say precisely how sanctions would be restored but Western powers have been adamant that it should take place without a Security Council vote, based on provisions to be included in a new U.N. Security Council resolution to be adopted after a deal is struck.

The sanctions on Iran are set to be lifted, either gradually or immediately (that little wrinkle hasn’t been ironed out yet), as part of the final deal with the U.S., but if and when Iran’s caught cheating later, they’re supposed to “snap back” into place automatically. In theory, that’s going to deter Iran from cheating (even though reimposing sanctions that are currently in place would merely restore us to the status quo rather than punish Iran for its deception with extra penalties). In practice, there’s no such thing as sanctions being restored “automatically.” First, there’d need to be some finding by someone that Iran really did cheat, a difficult step given that the Iranians will take care to obscure the evidence and their friends in Moscow and Beijing will do plenty of spinning on their behalf. Besides, how eager will western powers be to bring sanctions back when that’ll be received as a humiliating admission that negotiations with Iran have failed and that Iran skeptics were right all along to trust Tehran? Very unlikely to happen. But if you’re semi-serious about “snapback sanctions,” then at a minimum you need a mechanism that’ll somehow avert the inevitable obstruction to come from Russia and China. Which explains why this new “dispute-resolution panel” when alleged violations occur will … include Russia and China — and Iran. Wait, what?

So help me figure this out. Could it be that the panel will issue its “non-binding opinions” on suspected nuclear cheating if there’s a majority vote of the members in favor rather than a unanimous vote? Unanimity (at least among the permanent members) is the chief weakness of the UN Security Council; Russia and China can singlehandedly block measures there with their own veto. Maybe the Iran dispute panel will be designed so that it can take action on 4-3 votes, even if Russia, China, and Iran dissent. But … why would any of those countries agree to a scheme like that instead of insisting that the panel’s findings be referred to the UNSC, where they can be vetoed? And why, if the panel’s findings are non-binding, would Russia or China agree to impose any sanctions on Iran themselves just because a majority of the panel voted to do so? They’d be better off using that as an excuse to quit the panel altogether, insisting that its findings are unenforceable without Security Council approval. In fact, I wonder if the panel’s relationship to the Security Council will be left ambiguous for exactly that reason. The western members can claim that if the panel finds Iran is cheating, they’re bound by that determination and will re-impose sanctions of their own; meanwhile, Russia and China can claim that no one is bound by anything until the Security Council says so, which gives them cover to declare that Iran hasn’t officially violated the agreement and shouldn’t be punished. This nuclear kabuki in Geneva has gotten as far as it has only because both sides have been willing to interpret what the other has supposedly agreed to in the most self-serving ways. Having the west treat the dispute panel as binding while the east treats it as non-binding would be perfectly consistent with that.

In other words, assuming that the panel will operate by majority vote, it’s just a fig leaf for legitimacy for the west in lieu of a Security Council vote. The U.S., UK, France, and Germany can point to its findings as conclusive and use that as a reason to reinstate sanctions without having to worry about what Russia and China will do at the UN. If the panel operates by unanimous vote, though, then … I don’t get it at all. Russia and China will make sure there’s never a finding of noncompliance. Not even Obama would agree to a deal like that. Would he? Exit question: Er, how is the dispute panel supposed to find that Iran’s been cheating when UN inspectors aren’t allowed at Iran’s most sensitive sites?