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.
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.
MYTH: 5) More pressure will secure a better deal.
Patently false. Sanctions, other forms of coercive measures, and threats of military force were the default means of trying to influence Iran's perceptions and self-interest for 35 years. They produced less in three decades than real diplomacy produced in two years. Since August 2013, negotiations without preconditions have shown Iranian decision-makers that it is in their interest to work with the U.S. in some areas, and it is possible for them to do so without capitulating. America's military and economic superiority too often serves as the backbone of arguments in favor of muscling Iran into line rather than using diplomacy to persuade Iranian decision-makers to solve the problems that generate their challenges to American power.
Threatening escalation does not deter conflict. Efforts to contain Tehran's nuclear and regional ambitions did not freeze the various aspects of Iranian policy that Washington deemed objectionable. Until recently, there was not an equal effort to explore ways of mitigating or eliminating the sources of conflict. America can re-learn a valuable lesson from its recent dealings with Iran: Today's international security challenges require less threats of escalating pressure and more diplomatic efforts to resolve the issues that motivate foreign nations. More pressure will not facilitate more Iranian concessions - it will harden and entrench differences at the negotiating table.
There is a transformative opportunity. It will not last long. Iran is vulnerable, economically squeezed, in unusual and delicate equilibrium between its hard-line and reformist forces. What Iran is not, and will never be, is weak enough to be brought to its knees on a core issue of national pride and prestige. Ownership of nuclear know-how (which cannot be bombed out of existence) is as important to Iranians as ownership of its oil was in the early 1950s, before an American-instigated coup. It’s worth recalling that this July marks the 27th anniversary of the shooting down by a United States warship of an Iranian civilian plane with almost 300 people on board. It’s not just for Americans that any accord involves a big psychological hurdle.
In 2003, as I describe in Treacherous Alliance - the Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the US, Iran only had 164 centrifuges. It offered to negotiate with the United States, but the George Bush administration refused. “We don’t talk to evil,” Vice President Dick Cheney quipped in response to the negotiation offer. Instead, the Bush administration resorted to threats of war and sanctions.
Iran, in turn, expanded its program. By 2005, it had 3,000 centrifuges. Again, it sought negotiations and offered to stop expanding its nuclear program. Again, the United States refused.
By the time President Barack Obama came to power, the Iranians were operating around 8,000 centrifuges. After his initial, limited attempt at diplomacy failed, Obama embarked on what was called the pressure track – sanctions. As the United States ramped up unprecedented sanctions, Iran accelerated its nuclear activities. By end of 2013, Iran had 22,000 centrifuges. It had a large stockpile of both low and medium enriched uranium. It had mastered the fuel cycle. It was closer to a breakout capability than ever before.
Pressure yielded pressure. Sanctions begot centrifuges. The escalation had left the United States increasingly faced with the worst option – war.
[Peter Beinart] Proponents, like myself, compare it to the alternatives: which are doing nothing, war, or trying to increase sanctions in hopes of getting a better deal down the line. What frustrates me is how rarely I see opponents explaining in any detail how any of these alternatives would be preferable. A few years ago, one saw more hawks arguing for a military strike. (I detailed some of the folks who did last year.) But one rarely hears anyone these days arguing that a military strike makes sense. Some say that a “credible threat of force” would make Iran concede more. But Israel and America have been threatening force for a decade now. Why would more saber-rattling work now? Besides, to have your threat of force be credible, don’t you have to be willing to follow through—which requires explaining why military action would be effective in retarding the nuclear program and wouldn’t make the current regional conflict far worse? More often, deal opponents talk about increasing sanctions, which would supposedly force Iran into concessions. But I rarely hear them explain how that will work given the internal politics of Iran. Seems more likely to me that scuttling this deal, and passing more sanctions, would devastate [Iranian President] Rouhani and [Iranian Foreign Minister] Zarif politically. Rouhani was elected to improve the economy; torpedoing the deal would make him a failure. That would empower those hardline opponents who never wanted any deal. Beyond that, what basis is there to believe European and Asian countries, which have strong economic interests in Iran, will maintain sanctions indefinitely? The lesson of Iraq in the 1990s is that sanctions erode over time. British and German diplomats have warned that if the U.S. destroys the deal, sanctions could unravel. So why should we believe economic pressure will go up and lead to more Iranian concessions? Seems at least as likely to me that economic pressure will go down.
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The West must make a distinction, however, between two types of sanctions in its dealings with Iran. There are punitive sanctions, which serve no other purpose than to isolate Iran politically and economically, and there are proliferation sanctions, which seek to deny Iran needed materials and technology that could contribute to a weapons program. The former category, as has been shown, stands little chance of succeeding by any measure and risks being profoundly counterproductive. Iran has demonstrated time and again that it will not be bullied into submission, yet leaders in Washington continue to talk of the need for sanctions that ‘‘bite’’ as a way of altering Iran’s behavior.49 It is time to abandon this type of wishful thinking. No combination of increasingly draconian sanctions has yet been shown to alter Iran’s fundamental decision making on the nuclear program. The only remaining leverage that these sanctions might possess involves offering the prospect of removing them in exchange for positive steps from Iran. Fortunately, over the past three decades, the United States and Europe have imposed more than enough sanctions of various types to explore such an approach.
Finally, some who argue against the deal believe that the United States should simply stand firm and Iran will either cave or crumble. Anyone who has dealt with Iranians knows that they are a proud, nationalistic people. The Islamic republic has endured three decades of U.S. sanctions, a nine-year war against Iraq (in which Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against the Iranians) and other international pressures. If tiny Cuba and North Korea haven’t caved after decades of much greater isolation, it is hard to imagine Iran doing so.
As for the belief that Iran will collapse soon, there is little evidence for this hope. More important, a more democratic Iran would likely still support a nuclear program. In fact, the leader of the 2009 Green Movement, Mir Hossein Mousavi, argued that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was making too many concessions to the West regarding Iran’s nuclear rights.
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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.
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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