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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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.
Nevertheless, negotiation critics promise a better deal if the administration stands firm. “Call their bluff,” insisted Netanyahu. The U.S. Congress is threatening new sanctions, which would undercut negotiations after Tehran has limited its program. According to Bloomberg’s John Rogin and Eli Lake, even Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, warned U.S. officials that expanding sanctions would wreck the talks. But radical GOP hawks don’t care. Sen. Cotton insisted: “The United States must cease all appeasement, conciliation and concessions towards Iran, starting with the sham nuclear negotiations.” His position is simple: Iran should surrender.
Ironically, such a demand would encourage Iran to again expand its nuclear capability. Even many Iranians well-disposed toward America support their nation’s nuclear program and do not want to be ruled from abroad. President Rouhani would face well-founded criticism for “appeasement” if he proposed yielding to such demands. Noted NIAC’s Trita Parsi: Rouhani “wants and needs a deal, but can’t afford one that will end his political career in Iran.”
Nor did Iran respond to prior pressure by crawling to Washington. Noted Parsi and Reza Marashi of NIAC: “When Washington imposed on Iran the most comprehensive sanctions regime in history, Tehran did not capitulate. Rather, it responded to pressure with pressure.” Tehran added centrifuges and increased reprocessing capabilities. Only the 2013 JPOA halted this process. A U.S. demand for capitulation would risk restarting Iranian efforts, ending enhanced inspections, and encouraging Tehran to follow North Korea in leaving the NPT entirely.
Having blown up the negotiations, the U.S. then would find it difficult to maintain international support for sanctions. China and Russia already have reason to break with America. Europeans looking forward to business with Iran would blame Washington for the renewed crisis. War might be Washington’s only alternative to a nuclear Iran.
It’s true that one wing of the current Iranian regime, led by President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, will accept substantial limits on Iran’s nuclear program in return for the lifting of sanctions. But Rouhani’s hardline opponents, who benefit politically and economically from the sanctions, fiercely oppose such a deal. Netanyahu thinks a more aggressive American posture, coupled with a demand for near-complete Iranian capitulation, will make Tehran accept terms that today not even Iranian doves accept. To grasp how absurd that it is, just reverse the lens. How would more aggressive Iranian behavior, coupled with a demand for near-complete American capitulation, affect the debate in Washington? Would it turn Tom Cotton into Noam Chomsky? Of course not. It would empower those Americans who most oppose a deal already.
It’s the same in Iran. If the United States scuttles Thursday’s deal, Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group told me, Rouhani and Zarif will “be totally discredited, marginalized. That would be the end of Rouhani’s attempt at talks to resolve this peacefully.” Rand Corporation Iran expert Alireza Nader added that, “If everything collapses and Rouhani has nothing to show for his efforts, the balance may go toward conservatives and ultra-conservatives and they can make it hard for him to go back to table.”
To compel the other side to negotiate, you need pressure and leverage, it is assumed. For the other side to agree to change its behavior, however, you need to offer giving up that leverage as an incentive. But once the pressure is relieved, so is the incentive of the other side to comply with the agreement, the paradigm dictates, causing the deal to fall apart.
The paradox is caused by a flaw in the paradigm's foundational assumption: The behavior of the other side can only be changed through pressure.
There is no solution to this paradox. The paradigm needs to be discarded altogether.
Rather, any deal needs to be embedded in a web of other arrangements that changes the incentive structure of both sides. The leap of faith both sides must take to strike a deal must be balanced by measures following the deal that tie the two together and raise the cost for reverting back to the previous posture and policies.
For Iran, the prospect of shedding its pariah status and being integrated into the political and economic structures of the region and the global economy will be a profoundly potent deterrent against any impulse to restart the controversial dimensions of the nuclear program. The fear of losing this new acceptance will be more powerful than the fear of shouldering new economics sanctions.
For the U.S., the reduction of tensions following a nuclear deal and increase in discreet collaboration on regional matters such as the efforts against ISIS in Iraq, will be of tremendous value. As Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council said last month: After a nuclear accord has been signed, Iran in the United States “can behave in a way that they do not use their energy against each other." The cost of losing Iran as a neutral, or better yet, stabilizing force in the region will be a stronger deterrent against any foul play on sanctions relief than Iran retaining a few more hundred centrifuges.
Operating in the pressure paradigm, neither side can imagine alternative drivers of behavior. The notion that a deal could change Iran's incentive structure and make it not desire actions that would violate the deal simply do not fit within this paradigm. Similarly, the Iranians do not trust that the West would see adhering to the deal as being in its interest absent Iran being on the verge of breakout.
The assumptions of this paradigm have always been questionable at best. Pressure played a far lesser role than the two sides like to maintain. In reality, the negotiations took off because the pressure path was leading to a dead end— a war neither side wanted. In addition, there was a mutual concession: both sides accepted the other's red line. Iran accepted America's red line of not building a nuclear weapon and the Obama administration accepted the Iranian red line that it would not be deprived of the capacity to enrich uranium on its own soil.
Just as the pressure paradigm did not bring about the negotiations, the last round of negotiations have made clear that it is even less likely that it will bring about a durable deal. For a solution to be reached and endure, both sides need to feel that they won something. Pressure cannot bring about that sentiment. No one can be pressured into feeling like a winner.
Durable solutions are found when both sides feel that they have gained something they do not want to lose and that they cannot obtain through other means. Their incentives are transformed. They no longer want to cheat because they are more satisfied within the agreement than outside of it. Not necessarily because of the punishment they would suffer, but because of the gains they would lose.
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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