Coercive diplomacy could work to get a better deal with Iran
Sanctions have put Iran's economy on life support and forced them to the negotiating table. Giving up these valuable tools now for the current deal would be a mistake when the P5+1 partners could use them instead to compel Iran to adopt other needed measures including restrictions on their development of ballistic missiles, funding for terrorist proxies, and their ability to enrich uranium.
The defeatist case. All right: So the Iran deal is full of holes. Maybe it won’t work. Got any better ideas? Sanctions weren’t about to stop a determined regime, and we couldn’t have enforced them for much longer. Nobody wants to go to war to stop an Iranian bomb, not the American public and not even the Israelis. And conservatives, of all people, should know that foreign policy often amounts to a choice between evils. The best case for a nuclear deal is that it is the lesser evil.
Then again, serious sanctions were only imposed on Iran in November 2011. They cut the country’s oil exports by half, shut off its banking system from the rest of the world, sent the rial into free fall and caused the inflation rate to soar to 60%. By October 2013 Iran was six months away from a severe balance-of-payments crisis, according to estimates by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. And that was only the first turn of the economic screw: Iran’s permitted oil exports could have been cut further; additional sanctions could have been imposed on the “charitable” foundations controlled by Iran’s political, military and clerical elite. Instead of turning the screw, Mr. Obama relieved the pressure the next month by signing on to the interim agreement now in force.
It’s true that nobody wants war. But a deal that gives Iran the right to enrich unlimited quantities of uranium after a decade or so would leave a future president no option other than war to stop Iran from building dozens of bombs. And a deal that does nothing to stop Iran’s development of ballistic missiles would allow them to put one of those bombs atop one of those missiles.
[David Frum] The United States did not negotiate the way people negotiate to get the best deal obtainable. It signaled from the start of the talks that it regarded the military option (supposedly always “on the table”) as in fact unthinkable. It collared Congress to prevent imposition of new sanctions when the Iranians acted balky. It was a mistake too to send the secretary of state to head the delegation, especially a secretary of state who had been a presidential nominee: Secretary Kerry was too big to be allowed to fail. His Iranian counterpart, by contrast, could easily be disavowed by a regime whose supreme authority always maintained a wide distance from the talks.
Nor is the administration enacting its agreement as if it felt confident of its merits. The administration invented an approval process that marginalizes Congress. The agreement becomes binding so long as just one-third of the members of either House support it. For an administration that has complained so much about the anti-democratic filibuster, that’s quite a bold departure from the normal constitutional rule.
The administration brought home a weak deal, having negotiated in a way that put a better deal out of reach. Now it challenges critics: Accept this weak agreement or fight a war. But it’s the deal’s authors who created a false and dangerous choice. As we think about what comes next, keep in mind how we arrived where we are.
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Some observers believe that the political and economic problems are starting to have an effect on the Iranian regime’s thinking about the nuclear issue. Eizenstat noted, “I think it’s one of the reasons there’s at least the beginning of a debate in Iran about whether it’s wise to go forward with the nuclear program.” Iran expert Kenneth Katzman argued that the political developments indicate that the U.S. strategy is working, adding, “[W]e do see signs of a strategic reassessment in Iran.” In fact, the recently released NIE gives cause for optimism that Iran might actually modify its behavior on its entire nuclear program in the face of the right mix of carrots and sticks. The NIE noted that Iran’s nuclear-related decisions are guided by a “cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic and military costs.” According to the NIE, Iran’s decision to halt its covert nuclear weapons program in 2003 was in response to “increasing international scrutiny,” suggesting that “Iran may be more vulnerable to influence on the issue that we judged previously.”
The answer here isn’t comforting: Recent history shows that the Iranian regime will change behavior only if confronted with overwhelming force and the prospect of an unwinnable war. Short of that, the Iranians seem ready to cruise along on the brink, expecting that the other side will steer away. I count two clear instances when Iran has backed down, and two more “maybes.” These examples remind us that the Iranian leaders aren’t irrational madmen — and also that they drive a hard bargain. Here are the two documented retreats:
- In July 1988 Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini “drank the cup of poison,” as he put it, and agreed to end the Iraq-Iran war. He accepted a U.N.-sponsored truce but only after eight years of brutal fighting, Iraqi rocket attacks on Iranian cities and the use of poison gas against Iranian troops. Khomeini’s decision followed the shooting down of an Iranian civilian airliner on July 3 by the USS Vincennes — unintended but a demonstration of overwhelming American firepower in the Persian Gulf.
- In the fall of 2003 Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s regime halted its nuclear weapons program because of “international pressure,” according to a 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate. The decision came after the March 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, which the Iranians apparently feared was the prelude to an attack on their soil. The Iranians also agreed in 2003 to start talks with European nations on limiting their enrichment of uranium — beginning the haggling that continues to this day.
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[CON] Rather than accept this bad deal, the U.S. should press for a better deal. America should insist on deeper reductions in Iran’s existing nuclear capabilities, a longer duration, and more intrusive inspections. If Iran rejects these demands, the U.S. should rally international support to intensify international sanctions on Iran. Given low oil prices and a weak market, Washington is in a strong position to reduce Iran’s oil exports and coerce Tehran to accept more favorable terms for a deal. It may take time for additional sanctions to work, but that is better than accepting a deal that gives away too much.
The author argues the power and value of U.S. trade relations with its allies will compel them to cooperate with U.S. unilateral sanctions or work to renegotiate the Iran nuclear deal.
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Michael Mandelbaum argues that the best alternative to the nuclear deal is one that was never fully utilized during the negotiations -- present a credible threat to use force.
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The Wall Street Editorial board disputes the characterization of the Obama administration that the choices now are between the deal and war, arguing that "Mr. Obama knows there has always been an alternative to his diplomacy of concessions because many critics have suggested it. It’s called coercive diplomacy, and it might have worked to get a better deal if Mr. Obama had tried it."
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Recent history shows that the Iranian regime will change behavior only if confronted with overwhelming force and the prospect of an unwinnable war. Short of that, the Iranians seem ready to cruise along on the brink, expecting that the other side will steer away.
[ More ]