Shadow Government

The meaning of a ‘diplomatic’ approach to Iran

Amidst the growing tensions  and limited policy options over Iran’s nuclear program, there has at least been a perceptible improvement in the framing of the public debate, specifically over the use of the term "diplomacy." Here some background is important. During the Bush administration’s second term, as the White House led an effort to increase ...

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

Amidst the growing tensions  and limited policy options over Iran’s nuclear program, there has at least been a perceptible improvement in the framing of the public debate, specifically over the use of the term "diplomacy." Here some background is important. During the Bush administration’s second term, as the White House led an effort to increase the multilateral economic sanctions regime on Iran and offered the "freeze for freeze" proposal that Mike Singh describes below, critics sometimes accused the Bush administration of pursuing "sanctions instead of diplomacy." Not so, we often protested, because we viewed sanctions as an integral component of diplomacy. Indeed, we believed diplomacy to include the full range of non-kinetic measures in the toolkit, including bilateral and multilateral talks, economic rewards and punishments, resolutions from multilateral fora, and even the possible threat of force – sometimes used in concert with each other for a full spectrum of "diplomacy." More important, we believed that economic sanctions (both potential and actual) helped strengthen our leverage for potential talks, as they demonstrated our diplomatic seriousness and also provided an additional bargaining chip. Thus the charge that sanctions somehow represented a contrast to diplomacy sounded myopic and muddle-headed. The critics’ real gripe seemed to reflect their preference at the time for unconditional bilateral talks with Tehran, a wish echoed by then-presidential candidate Obama in the 2008 campaign.

Fast forward to today, as the Obama administration finds itself in the crucible over how to address Iran’s nuclear program. As difficult as the policy options may be, at least the terms of the public debate are more accurate. The choices now are often posed as "diplomacy" versus military strikes — and diplomacy is rightly understood to include the robust sanctions regime currently in place. In their admirable efforts to craft and implement this sanctions regime, the Obama administration has also been operating with a proper definition of diplomacy that includes the economic sanctions, rather than somehow being an alternative to sanctions. Yet worries endure about lapsing into the old false dichotomy, reinforced yesterday by a bipartisan group of Senators.

While diplomacy is being used more accurately today, the Obama administration still occasionally confuses the terms in another way that undermines the diplomatic agenda. By repeatedly asserting that Israel should not attack Iran, and by occasionally contradicting and stepping on its own "all options are on the table" message, the White House undercuts its own diplomacy and ironically makes the possibility of a military strike by Israel or even the U.S. more likely. Why? Because in signaling that the U.S. opposes a military strike, the U.S. erodes the bite of its own sanctions and indicates to Tehran that the current measures are the most severe that the Iranian regime will have to endure. Whereas diplomatic signaling should include a consistent and credible "all options are on the table for both the U.S. and Israel" message that persuades Tehran to believe that a military strike is at least possible. This will make Iran more likely to calculate that things could actually get worse than the present straits and decide that striking a diplomatic bargain to curtail its nuclear program is the best option.

Diplomacy is not mere talking — it is rather the full range of signaling measures, including sanctions, the threat of force, and yes public and private talking — that a state can employ to achieve its ends. As former career diplomat (and my grad school instructor) Charlie Hill has written, "diplomacy and power are indispensable and must be used, for best effect, in tandem." In other words, diplomacy without power is mere words. Whereas the context for effective diplomacy provides the meaning behind the words used — the presence of coercive measures such as sanctions, the possibility of positive inducements, the credibility and authority of the person delivering the words, and the possibility and capability of the use of force.

Even if the Iran crisis does lead to the use of force in some capacity, this will not necessarily mean that diplomacy has been abandoned but rather that diplomacy is entering a critical new phase. U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice’s comments this morning reflect this muddle. On the one hand, she rightly does not rule out the use of force, and she appropriately links negotiations with the sanctions pressure in the diplomatic track. On the other hand, she says that a possible military strike is "not going to end the program." This wording mistakenly de-links the possible use of force from the political goal of ending the Iranian nuclear program. When in fact no one can really know what the political effects of military action might be — would it increase Tehran’s resolve to renew its program, or would it perhaps persuade the regime to give up its nuclear program due to the escalated costs? Here the potential use of force should be integrated as much as possible with the political goals that the Obama administration is trying to achieve — such as persuading Iran to end its nuclear weapons program, persuading other nations to maintain Iran’s diplomatic and economic isolation if it does not, and perhaps even further eroding the support of the Iranian people for their miserable government.

Will Inboden is the executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and as a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.

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