Coercive diplomacy will not work to force Iran to come to better terms
Opponents of the nuclear deal with Iran argue that the simple alternative is to reject the deal and increase sanctions pressure or the threat of military force to compel Iran to return to the negotiations table and agree to terms more favorable to the U.S. However, this approach fails to consider that for negotiations to succeed, they have to have a balance of incentives and compromises and the deal reached in Vienna reflected the best that both sides could bear. Further restrictions are unlikely to improve the terms of the deal and will result in a collapse of the talks as our allies are looking forward to resuming economic trade with Iran. Finally, there are important practical and moral questions to ask about the efficacy of sanctions as an instrument, as their success in changing Iran's behavior has not been proven.
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To be sure, no amount of pressure applied to date has induced an Iranian breakout, and there is no guarantee that a tipping point will someday be reached. After all, kicking a hornets’ nest does not necessarily mean one will get stung. Still, it remains a highly risky proposition. The international community simply cannot know with certainty just how much pressure Iran is willing to withstand. So long as pressure alone is unlikely to succeed as a nonproliferation policy, it runs the risk of being counterproductive. The West must therefore maintain enough flexibility to break out of the cycle of mutual hostility that could lead to escalation. Gradual brinkmanship plays into Iran’s strengths; high oil revenues ensure Iran has sufficient resources to continue nuclear progress, while ‘‘salami- slicing’’ tactics guarantee that no single violation is enough to justify an all-out Western military response. In order for a pressure-only strategy to succeed in the long term, Western leaders must be willing to mobilize for a full-scale military conflict, up to and including an invasion, regime change, and occupation, in order to halt Iranian nuclear development. Barring that, policy makers must maintain the flexibility needed to de- escalate the conflict over Iran’s nuclear program. This means that, for Western policy makers, a readiness to reward good behavior is equally or more important than a willingness to punish bad behavior. The leaders of the Islamic Republic must be convinced that they stand to gain from foregoing nuclear weapons and that sanctions can and will be lifted in exchange for cooperation on the nuclear issue.
Implicitly acknowledging this, most critics of the Iran deal propose a third alternative: increase sanctions in hopes of forcing Iran to make further concessions. But in the short term, the third alternative looks a lot like the first. Whatever its deficiencies, the Iran deal places limits on Iran’s nuclear program and enhances oversight of it. Walk away from the agreement in hopes of getting tougher restrictions and you’re guaranteeing, at least for the time being, that there are barely any restrictions on the program at all.
What’s more, even if Congress passes new sanctions, it’s quite likely that the overall economic pressure on Iran will go down, not up. Most major European and Asian countries have closer economic ties to Iran than does the United States, and thus more domestic pressure to resume them. These countries have abided by international sanctions against Iran, to varying degrees, because the Obama administration convinced their leaders that sanctions were a necessary prelude to a diplomatic deal. If U.S. officials reject a deal, Iran’s historic trading partners will not economically injure themselves indefinitely. Sanctions, declared Britain’s ambassador to the United States in May, have already reached “the high-water mark,” noting that “you would probably see more sanctions erosion” if nuclear talks fail. Germany’s ambassador added that, “If diplomacy fails, then the sanctions regime might unravel."
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The nuclear issue has become a unifying force in an otherwise discordant Iranian political system, and Western pressure has only encouraged this trend. As Iran’s perceived external threat grows, the importance of the nuclear program for Iranian national unity correspondingly increases. This pattern only feeds the West’s determination to try harder to impose some form of constraints, leading to new and ever tougher measures that are always under development. The West and Iran, therefore, are locked in a cycle of hostility wherein the West constantly ratchets up pressure by imposing sanctions and threats, and Iran responds with further entrenchment of its defiance. However, there is a significant danger inherent in this dynamic. Western pressure forces Iran to bear the costs of an illicit nuclear weapons program despite the fact that*in Iran’s view*no such illicit program actually exists. The longer the West imposes punishment for a crime that Iran believes it did not commit, the greater the odds that Iran’s calculus could shift in favor of weaponization, if for no other reason than it has nothing to lose by doing so.48 Ultimately, this path leads either toward confrontation or proliferation.
When critics focus incessantly on the gap between the present deal and a perfect one, what they’re really doing is blaming Obama for the fact that the United States is not omnipotent. This isn’t surprising given that American omnipotence is the guiding assumption behind contemporary Republican foreign policy. Ask any GOP presidential candidate except Rand Paul what they propose doing about any global hotspot and their answer is the same: be tougher. America must take a harder line against Iran’s nuclear program, against ISIS, against Bashar al-Assad, against Russian intervention in Ukraine and against Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea.
The United States cannot bludgeon Iran into total submission, either economically or militarily. The U.S. tried that in Iraq. If you believe American power is limited, this agenda is absurd. America needs Russian and Chinese support for an Iranian nuclear deal. U.S. officials can’t simultaneously put maximum pressure on both Assad and ISIS, the two main rivals for power in Syria today. They must decide who is the lesser evil. Accepting that American power is limited means prioritizing. It means making concessions to regimes and organizations you don’t like in order to put more pressure on the ones you fear most. That’s what Franklin Roosevelt did when allying with Stalin against Hitler. It’s what Richard Nixon did when he reached out to communist China in order to increase America’s leverage over the U.S.S.R.
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Tehran follows this pattern of responding to pressure with pressure not out of spite, but rather as a way of showing the West that the Islamic Republic will not back down and will not allow itself to appear weak. Former Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki, in an interview in August 2011, explained how past Iranian attempts at accommodation are viewed in Tehran as having failed, validating what he called Iran’s ‘‘soft aggressive’’ foreign policy: What needs to be said about foreign policy during the reformist period is that we had a good ‘‘window dressing’’ foreign policy and it was relatively well received. But, this policy preferred not to get involved in fundamental foreign policy issues. In other words, in my view they tried to work outside the main and key foreign policy issues. The stage was decorated well and the decoration became more important than the stage itself. However, in the program that I presented to the Majles, the foreign policy of the ninth government was going to be a ‘‘soft aggressive’’ foreign policy and by soft we mean diplomatically aggressive. Adopting this approach moved us from a position of the accused to the position of the accuser and gave us the upper hand in negotiations with foreign partners.44
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While the agreement is not ideal, it is far superior to the alternatives that have been posited. Opponents argue that the United States should have held out, imposed tougher sanctions, and reached a better deal that eliminated Iran’s nuclear capabilities. But the reality is that the United States and its partners already tried that approach and it failed.
Between 2003 and 2005 Iran suspended its nuclear program and entered negotiations with France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. At the time, Iran had a nascent program with 164 centrifuges and was willing to accept an agreement similar to the one that proponents of a better deal today extol. But rather than take that agreement, the parties walked away.
Afterwards, the United States and its partners began the effort to increase economic pressure on Iran, levying multiple Security Council resolutions and building out a robust international sanctions regime. Iran responded by increasing the size of its nuclear program, building 20,000 centrifuges and changing facts on the ground – all of which occurred under sanctions pressure. At the time of President Rouhani’s election in 2013 Iran’s breakout time to a bomb’s worth of highly enriched uranium had decreased to only two to three months. At that point, the President Obama had a choice either to seize the opportunity for an opening and freeze Iran’s nuclear program through the Joint Plan of Action or continue to apply pressure. If the United States had continued to apply pressure and gone for a “better deal,” Iran would have continued to build out its program. By now, Iran’s economy would have been even more devastated, but it also would be only weeks away from a bomb. And the United States would be faced with the very real dilemma of pursuing military action or allowing Iran to achieve a virtual nuclear capability.
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Just as it did with developing chemical weapons during the 1980s, Iran has responded to what it viewed as provocative Western actions directed toward its nuclear program by escalating its own nuclear defiance. When Barack Obama took office in January 2009, he promised to engage with Tehran in an atmosphere of mutual respect and without preconditions. Hopes were raised in Tehran that Obama might be a different kind of American president. Supreme Leader Khamenei famously responded to Obama’s message of change by saying, ‘‘If you change your attitude, we will change our attitude,’’ admitting that there are in fact some areas where Iran’s policies could warrant alteration.35 Expectations were high leading into the first significant meeting of the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany). The initial response by Iran’s envoys was positive, and the parties left the October 1, 2009 meeting optimistic that a deal might be in the offing. In the following weeks, however, Tehran made it clear that it would not accept the deal as offered, and Washington declared it to be a ‘‘take it or leave it’’ proposition. By the end of October, the deal had broken down.
This is not to suggest that Iran poses no threat. Tehran has reached the threshold of having a nuclear weapons capability. In August, an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report stated that the country has 2,100 centrifuges in an underground site and has intensified production of nuclear fuel. To curb the Iranian nuclear program, concerned states have applied increasingly severe economic sanctions on the Iranian central bank and its crude oil sector, carried out cyber attacks on Iranian centrifuges, and attempted targeted assassinations of Iranian scientists and engineers. Meanwhile, in Jerusalem and Washington, decision-makers appear to be aligning their time frames for a preventive attack [http://nyti.ms/QphdvD]. At the United Nations in early October, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argued for instituting a redline on Iran's nuclear proliferation: Should Iran enrich uranium beyond a certain point, he urged, the world would agree to attack. European diplomats characterized his speech as reminiscent of former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's to the United Nations in 2003, albeit with lower-quality graphics. But calling for war while intensifying pressure on Iran, without also clearly defining steps Tehran could take to defuse the tension, removes any incentives for Iran to change its behavior. In the short term, the hostility of Western nations is likely to make it more difficult for Iranian moderates to rein in the nuclear program. And in the longer term, Tehran will increasingly question whether Iran ought to remain within the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in the face of economic sanctions, violence, and isolation. Without eyes on the ground, moreover, it will grow ever more difficult to assess Tehran's actual progress toward the nuclear weapons threshold. The world could miss the emergence of an Iranian breakout capability, or else blunder into another unjustified war.
The argument that the status quo is better than a “bad deal,” or that the US-led coalition should get a “better deal,” is simply unrealistic. If the global coalition could squeeze better terms from Iran, it would. If the US walks away from a deal without provocation from Iran, which is a possibility, the global coalition that has imposed sanctions on Iran will in all likelihood melt away. And its not just the Russians and Chinese who will walk. The Germans and French want to do business with Iran, and would not stand by idly if the framework succumbs to US internal wrangling. It was never realistic to think the US could hold western sanctions on Iran together indefinitely. If the US is seen to have scuttled a deal due to divisive domestic American politics, it would be naive to believe sanctions could be sustained.
Finally, attempting to generate an existential crisis for the Islamic Republic could backfire by increasing the regime’s incentives to acquire nuclear weapons. If the United States escalates economic or military pressure at the very moment when Iran has finally be- gun to negotiate in earnest, Khamenei will likely conclude that the real and irrevocable goal of U.S. policy is regime change. Solidifying this perception would enhance, rather than lessen, Tehran’s motivation to develop a nuclear deterrent. In short, playing chicken with Iran will not work and is likely to result in a dangerous crash. Gambling everything by insisting on an optimal deal could result in no deal at all, leaving Iran freer and potentially more motivated to build atomic arms and making a military confrontation more likely.
US Secretary of State John Kerry has hit back at critics of his nuclear deal with Iran, saying it was "fantasy" to suggest a better accord was possible. He told the US Senate's Foreign Relations Committee: "We set out to dismantle [Iran's] ability to build a nuclear weapon and we achieved that."
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Fareed Zakira argues that the idea that forcing Iran back to the table will have international support and compel Iran to make more concessions is not rooted in reality and is "the real gamble, a high stakes one with little evidence to support it."
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Peter Beinart argues that one of the main reasons conservatives object to the Iran nuclear deal (as well as one of their core misunderstandings) is that it makes clear the limits of American power to get Iran to abide to our demands.
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Trita Parsi argues that the success of the negotiations have proven the hawks wrong in their assumption that only pressure would get Iran to cooperate and that the real historic value of the agreement is that the "cycle of escalation has been broken."
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