The Illogic of America’s Iran policy

Policy-makers, scholars and pundits have offered every possible coercive strategy imaginable to solve the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program.  From broad sanctions to aerial bombing (including the use of nukes to bust underground facilities), including targeted sanctions on Iran’s oil sector, naval mining, sabotage and targeted killings.  Some of these have been tried, with little result so far.  The others show similarly little promise with yet greater risks.  All the while, the US, together with UK, Russia, China, France and Germany (the P5+1), have also been intermittently pursuing a negotiated solution to the impasse.  After nearly a decade and countless meetings, dialogue has so far also failed to deliver.  Commentators like Dennis Ross and Gareth Evans would have us believe that it’s just a matter of finding the right “mix” of sticks and carrots, by ratcheting pressure to the point that negotiation seems attractive.  They fail to appreciate that this “dual track” of coercion and negotiation has actually been counterproductive, because they don’t really understand what it represents and what it entails.

First of all, any serious discussion of the present strategy towards Iran should acknowledge that it is not a judiciously calculated and balanced policy, but a result of political pulling and hauling among the P5+1 and within each of these countries, most notably the United States.  Some would rightly contend that most foreign policy decisions match this description, but this issue has been the subject of extraordinary amounts of political arm-wrestling.  The result is a hodgepodge of incongruous actions, instead of a coherent policy.   This is the Iran policy that no one wanted, but all are being forced to live with.  Because of the desire to appear in control, the Obama administration and their acolytes try to rationalize it and own it.

To be sure, this competitive policy-making process can sometimes have positive effects, like forcing hard-liners into more moderate positions.  But it can also have dangerous consequences, like sending deeply contradictory signals to the intended target and undermining the credibility of both threats and concessions.  Western officials and observers are quick to point out how Iran’s “erratic”, “duplicitous” behavior and lack of transparency make it an untrustworthy partner, but somehow fail to recognize how the vitriolic public discourse in the US, dissension among the P5+1, and a resulting schizophrenic policy can confuse Iranian leaders and reinforce their already deep-seated mistrust of the West.  Less than two weeks after the Istanbul talks on the Iranian nuclear issue, where the parties introduced the language of “addressing the mutual trust gap”, Obama unveiled new sanctions on the Iranian Revolutionary Guards for their use of technology to perpetrate human rights abuses. Later, a week after the failed talks in Baghdad, illuminating reports of Obama’s covert cyber warfare made the headlines. Meanwhile, Republicans and Israeli leaders keep beating the drums of war and neoconservative think tankers vocally advocate that the only solution for the nuclear impasse is regime change in Iran.

The second thing many seem to misunderstand is the nature of the mission being pursued.  While most people speak of “containing” or “deterring” Iran from getting nuclear weapons, and many of the policies employed are geared for containment and deterrence, the task at hand is really one of “compellence”.  In other words, the goal is not only to dissuade Iran from getting a nuclear weapon (though it is far from clear that they are in fact seeking weaponization), but also to persuade it to give up or severely roll back its nuclear program.  This may seem like a distinction without a difference, but it’s actually very important.  As Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling explained long ago, while deterrence is all about getting a state not to change its behavior, compellence requires it to change its behavior, by starting to do something or ceasing an already ongoing action.  Compellence has been historically extremely hard to attain, and the case of Iran offers a particularly hard case.   Not because Iranian leaders are irrational or impervious to pressure, but because the higher the value states place on a specific behavior the harder it is to persuade them to change it.  Iran’s nuclear program enjoys overwhelming public support, and is seen not only as a matter of national pride and status but also as a guarantee of national and regime security.  In cases such as these, sanctions are unlikely to cause the target to buckle and the threat of force actually pushes them to up the ante.  Iranian leaders figure that yielding to threats will only invite further demands and coercion.  This problem is intrinsic to all “compellent” threats, but is exacerbated when the threatening party appears unclear or divided as to what will finally satisfy it.  Western policy-makers have focused exclusively on applying pressure to raise the costs of Iran’s non-compliance, without realizing that they were also raising the political and strategic risks associated with giving in to Western demands.

On the other hand deterring nuclear-armed states from using these weapons or engaging in hostilities that might escalate to the point of their use has proven much easier, because the risk of nuclear war, however uncertain, is too much for leaders to gamble with.  Somehow, despite all the above difficulties with compelling states and a very uninspiring track record for previous attempts – and a perfect record of mutual nuclear deterrence – hawks in the West are paradoxically convinced that a nuclear Iran will not be deterrable, but that they can coerce it into refraining from developing these weapons.

As said before, this mix of strategies reflects not a carefully calibrated policy of sticks and carrots, but a divided Security Council and a fractured political system in the US.  It not only defies logic, but also does not reflect Obama’s preferences for dealing with the problem.  That notwithstanding, he is now committed to this course of action and will be held to it by his opposition, special interest groups and allies in the Middle East.  We shouldn’t expect anything else at this point in the election cycle.  But purported supporters of a diplomatic solution are not doing themselves any favors by claiming authorship of this policy and trying to spin it as a success.  Wedding themselves to this policy blinds them to alternatives and unnecessarily narrows the public debate on a major strategic issue.

As a result, when talks in Baghdad yet again failed to reach an agreement, Western negotiators’ greatest achievement was to keep the lines of communication open and push for new talks, to be held in Moscow.  This was no mean feat, especially because the deal proposed to Iran was so unappealing one would have expected a new breakdown in negotiations.  But unless Western diplomats arrive in Moscow ready for serious compromise, they will again leave with little to show for it.