Stephen M. Walt

On Iran, try backscratching, not blackmail

If someone threatened to punish you unless you did something you didn’t want to do, how would you respond? Unless the threatened punishment was really horrible you’d refuse, because giving into threats encourages the threatener to make more demands. But what if someone offered to pay you to do something you didn’t want to do? ...


If someone threatened to punish you unless you did something you didn’t want to do, how would you respond? Unless the threatened punishment was really horrible you’d refuse, because giving into threats encourages the threatener to make more demands. But what if someone offered to pay you to do something you didn’t want to do? If the price were right you’d agree, because that act of cooperation on your part sends a very different message. Instead of showing that you can be intimidated over and over, it simply lets people know that you’re willing to cooperate if you are adequately compensated.

This simple logic has thus far escaped most of the people involved with U.S. policy towards Iran. Today, the conventional wisdom is that the only way to elicit cooperation from Iran is to keep making more and more potent threats, what Vice-President Joe Biden recently called "diplomacy backed by pressure." Even wise practitioners of diplomacy like my colleague Nicholas Burns maintain that the U.S. and its allies must combine engagement with sanctions and more credible threats to use force, even though the United States and its allies have been threatening Iran for over a decade without success.

As my opening paragraph suggests, this approach ignores some important scholarly work on how states can most easily elicit cooperation. Way back in the 1970s, MIT political scientist Kenneth Oye identified a crucial distinction between blackmail and what he called "backscratching" and showed why the latter approach is more likely to elicit cooperation.  States (and people) tend to resist a blackmailer, because once you pay them off the first time, they can keep making more and more demands. And in international politics, giving in to one state’s threats might convey weakness and invite demands by others. By contrast, states (and people) routinely engage in acts of "backscratching," where each adjusts its behavior to give the other something that it wants in exchange for getting something that it wants. Backscratching — which is the essence of trade agreements, commercial transactions, and many other types of cooperation — establishes a valuable precedent: it shows that if you’ll do something for me, then I’ll do something for you. 

Not surprisingly, this is precisely what Iran’s government has been trying to tell us. Their bottom line for years has been that they were not going to negotiate with a gun to their heads. Or as Supreme Leader Khameini said in rejecting the most recent proposals for direct talks:

"The ball, in fact, is in your court. Does it make sense to offer negotiations while issuing threats and putting pressure? You are holding a gun against Iran saying you want to talk. The Iranian nation will not be frightened by the threats."

Such statements are normally interpreted as just another sign of Iranian intransigence, but as just discussed, there is a sound strategic basis for Iran’s position. It is, in fact, precisely the position we would take if somebody were threatening us in the same way.

The other problem with the Western approach, of course, is that threatening Iran reinforces their interest in having a latent nuclear weapons capability, and might eventually convince them that they need to get an actual bomb. Therefore, if our goal is to keep Iran as far away from the nuclear threshold as possible, imposing ever-harsher sanctions, constantly reiterating that "all options are on the table," and warning darkly of war should diplomacy fail is not a smart way to proceed.

And it’s worked really, really well thus far, hasn’t it?

It is also worth noting that the closest the US and Iran have come to deal was the aborted attempt to arrange a fuel swap of enriched uranium for the Tehran research reactor in 2009. The proposed deal nearly succeeded because it was a backscratching arrangement that didn’t require Iran to capitulate to threats. (And by the way, the Turkish and Brazilian officials who helped mediate the arrangement blame its failure mostly on the United States, not Iran).

So why do so many smart people keep embracing an approach to Iran that is internally contradictory and has consistently failed for more than a decade? I’m not entirely sure, but I suspect it has a lot to do with maintaining credibility inside Washington. Because Iran has been demonized for so long, and absurdly cast as the Greatest National Security Threat we face, it has become largely impossible for anyone to speak openly of a different approach without becoming marginalized. Instead, you have to sound tough and hawkish even if you are in favor of negotiations, because that’s the only way to be taken seriously in the funhouse world of official Washington (see under: the Armed Services Committee hearings on Chuck Hagel).

Finally, nothing I’ve written above should be interpreted as evidence of sympathy for Iran’s current government. The Islamic Republic has done some pretty objectionable things at home and abroad, but then again, so have plenty of countries that we routinely think of as friends and allies. And it’s not as though the United States is innocent of wrongdoing, as plenty of Iraqis, Pakistanis, Nicaraguans, Guatemalans, and others would be quick to tell us. My concern is simply with figuring out how to achieve a diplomatic outcome that would secure our primary objectives and avoid another pointless war in the Middle East.

It remains to be seen whether Obama will break out of the stale consensus that has hamstrung our approach to Iran thus far. For evidence that more sensible views can be found, see UK diplomat Peter Jenkins’ views here and the informative exchange between former US diplomat Thomas Pickering and Iran’s UN Ambassador Mohammed Khazaee here. The only question is whether the Obama administration can come up with a strategy that will convince Iran to remain on this side of the nuclear threshold and that will eventually open the door to a more positive relationship with that country. More than anything else, it will require tossing aside the confrontational approach that has been a consistent failure for more than a decade.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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