Our myopic approach to Iran

When historians of American foreign policy look back a few decades from now, they will shake their heads in wonder at the incompetence of the U.S. effort to deal with Iran. They will be baffled that the United States spent years trying to convince Iran to give up its nuclear enrichment program by making repeated ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

When historians of American foreign policy look back a few decades from now, they will shake their heads in wonder at the incompetence of the U.S. effort to deal with Iran. They will be baffled that the United States spent years trying to convince Iran to give up its nuclear enrichment program by making repeated threats of war, passing Congressional resolutions demanding regime change, waging a covert action campaign against the clerical regime, and imposing ever harsher economic sanctions. They will spend a lot of time exploring why U.S. leaders mindlessly stuck to this approach and never noticed that it wasn't working at all. Even as the sanctions bit harder, Iran kept moving closer to a nuclear "break-out" capability. Indeed, some analysts now believe it already has one.

Over the past month I've devoted several blog posts to explaining why the current U.S. approach was unlikely to achieve its stated objectives. The short version is that we are trying to blackmail Iran, and states don't like to give in to threats because they worry it will only invite more pressure. We are also trying to get Iran to give up the potential to acquire a nuclear deterrent by threatening them, which merely reinforces their desire for the very thing we don't want them to get. The conditions for successful coercive diplomacy are mostly lacking, and we've been incredibly niggardly in offering Iran any tangible carrots. As a result, it has been easy for Iranian hardliners to dismiss our professed interest in diplomacy as empty talk.

If you don't believe me, you should take a look at a new report from the National Iranian-American Council, available here. It is based on an extensive series of interviews with senior Iranian officials, analysts, and members of Iran's business community. It confirms that U.S.-led sanctions campaign -- "the most comprehensive in history" -- have indeed hit hard. But it also concludes that sanctions have failed to slow the nuclear program or alter Iran's commitment to maintaining it. According to the report:

When historians of American foreign policy look back a few decades from now, they will shake their heads in wonder at the incompetence of the U.S. effort to deal with Iran. They will be baffled that the United States spent years trying to convince Iran to give up its nuclear enrichment program by making repeated threats of war, passing Congressional resolutions demanding regime change, waging a covert action campaign against the clerical regime, and imposing ever harsher economic sanctions. They will spend a lot of time exploring why U.S. leaders mindlessly stuck to this approach and never noticed that it wasn’t working at all. Even as the sanctions bit harder, Iran kept moving closer to a nuclear "break-out" capability. Indeed, some analysts now believe it already has one.

Over the past month I’ve devoted several blog posts to explaining why the current U.S. approach was unlikely to achieve its stated objectives. The short version is that we are trying to blackmail Iran, and states don’t like to give in to threats because they worry it will only invite more pressure. We are also trying to get Iran to give up the potential to acquire a nuclear deterrent by threatening them, which merely reinforces their desire for the very thing we don’t want them to get. The conditions for successful coercive diplomacy are mostly lacking, and we’ve been incredibly niggardly in offering Iran any tangible carrots. As a result, it has been easy for Iranian hardliners to dismiss our professed interest in diplomacy as empty talk.

If you don’t believe me, you should take a look at a new report from the National Iranian-American Council, available here. It is based on an extensive series of interviews with senior Iranian officials, analysts, and members of Iran’s business community. It confirms that U.S.-led sanctions campaign — "the most comprehensive in history" — have indeed hit hard. But it also concludes that sanctions have failed to slow the nuclear program or alter Iran’s commitment to maintaining it. According to the report:

"The [nuclear] program appears at best entirely unaffected by the sanctions or at worst partly driven by them, in the sense that escalating sanctions as a bargaining chip also gives Iran the incentive to advance its program for the same reason."

The authors also conclude that the U.S. negotiating strategy has failed to provide Iranian moderates with an alternative narrative to use against hardliners like Ayatollah Khamenei. In particular, although Iran’s business community is suffering under the pressure of sanctions, it has "focused on seeking economic concessions from the regime rather than lobbying for a shift in Iran’s nuclear stance." Why? Because it cannot present a convincing case that an alternative Iranian posture would in fact produce a rapid lifting of sanctions or other benefits from the West.

If the United States and the rest of the P5+1 want to reach a deal, in short, they need to offer a much clearer and more convincing picture of the benefits Iran might gain from a deal, and they need to work harder to convey these brighter possibilities to the Iranian people. Instead of endlessly tightening sanctions, rejecting deterrence and containment, and repeatedly proclaiming that the option of preventive war is "on the table," the U.S. could start by explicitly rejecting the use of force and spelling out in some detail what it is willing to do for Iran. In other words, we ought to be making it harder for Khameini & co. to convince their colleagues not to compromise with us, instead of making it easy.

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

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