Commentary | January 19, 2011

What Will Turn Iran away from the Nuclear Threshold?

It is almost an iron law of diplomacy: the more rigid a policy becomes, the more likely it is to be counter-productive. When the policy is one of enforcement through sanctions, which imply at some point an ultimatum and possible use of force if there is no compliance, the risks associated with rigid policy become much higher.

What is the measure of appropriate firmness? If we take at face value the current arguments being used in American diplomacy right now, that metric is largely about principle. The assumption appears to be that if the United States is right to oppose Iran’s nuclear activity, then it must be justified in pursuing a rigid and escalating policy to force a reversal. This tendency toward a no compromise position has been reinforced now that the United States has marshaled significant international support, not least in the UN Security Council from Russia and China, for action against Iran’s nuclear program.

To be able to conduct diplomacy from a position of such strength is a luxury. It is also deceptively seductive. It is no guarantee of success.
The application of a coercive strategy is not as rational a process as U.S. policy seems to assume. Coercive strategy has to be deeply personal and, above all, a psychological undertaking.

The aim is to convince the opposing leaders on a personal level that continued opposition is too costly. Thus, the only measure of appropriate firmness in the case of U.S. policy toward Iran can be that which will bend the Iranian leadership to the will of the United States, its allies and the UN Security Council.

For a regime whose very ethos is built on deeply negative views of the United States (its support to the Shah and his brutal secret police, support to Israel, support to Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war, and U.S. leadership of invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, thus putting U.S. military forces to Iran’s east and west), this aim of forcing submission of the Iranian regime through economic sanctions may be, prima facie at least, almost pointless – short of the threat of invasion and regime change.

The policy trap of relying on the moral certainty of a position can be confounded by several other factors that appear to be in play. One is confusion about means and ends.

The desired end point for the United States and many of its allies is to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. If sanctions are the main tool of this policy, the analysis of means and ends needs to address their effectiveness in making Iran comply with the U.N. Security Council demands. The evidence to date is not good. In 2008, the U.S. Government Accounting Office concluded, like so many others, that the impact of U.S. sanctions on Iran was “unclear”. According to Dr Diana Gregor, a specialist in this subject cited by the Jerusalem Post on 9 January 2011, “sanctions so far have hit the country’s economy quite hard, but have not had an effect on the mullahs’ regime”. Diplomacy is not exclusively about “right is might”.  

Secretary of State Clinton cited to CNN on 12 January 2011 a statement of the outgoing Head of Israeli intelligence that a “combination of sanctions and covert actions have significantly slowed down the Iranian program”. The latter measure (covert action) may have had more effect than sanctions. Perhaps “might is right”. But there is room to doubt that covert attacks on Iran by Israel or the United States will make it more likely to bend to U.N. Security Council demands.  There may, however, now be a breathing space for the United States, Israel and Iran to search for mutually tolerable but different policies.   

Click here to read this piece in New Europe