Stephen M. Walt

Wise words on the Iran negotiations

On several occasions I’ve commented on how I thought the U.S. approach to Iran was difficult to fathom at best. For some reason, U.S. leaders seem to believe that constantly threatening Iran and ratcheting up economic sanctions will eventually force Tehran to say "Uncle" and give us everything we want, or it will lead the ...

ELVIS BARUKCIC/AFP/Getty Images
ELVIS BARUKCIC/AFP/Getty Images

On several occasions I’ve commented on how I thought the U.S. approach to Iran was difficult to fathom at best. For some reason, U.S. leaders seem to believe that constantly threatening Iran and ratcheting up economic sanctions will eventually force Tehran to say "Uncle" and give us everything we want, or it will lead the Iranian people to rise up and overthrow the clerics, dismantle their nuclear program, and jump warmly into the embrace of a grateful world. 

Never mind that this approach is contradictory (how does threatening someone make them less interested in a deterrent?) and imposes enormous human suffering on innocent Iranians. Never mind that the scholarly literature on economic sanctions shows that they are not a very effective instrument of coercion. Pay no attention to the fact that we’ve been trying this policy for over a decade, without any apparent success.

It is hard to know if Washington really thinks that some day this is going to work or if this just a politically expedient process of kicking the can down the road. You know: the same sort of brilliant statecraft that has led the mighty United States to maintain an economic embargo on Cuba for over fifty years. Really brought ol’ Fidel to his knees, didn’t it?

But you don’t have to take my word for it. In a recent speech at a Carnegie Endowment conference, Swedish Foreign Minsiter Carl Bildt offered up some wise words about the role that sanctions should (and should not) play in our policies toward Iran and other difficult regimes. Money quotation:

"There is no doubt that sanctions are and should be part of our toolbox. Preferably and primarily decided upon by the Security Council — for reasons of legality as well as efficiency.

But sanctions can only work if they are part of an overall policy where the different instruments are clearly geared towards specified objectives.

Sanctions can be part of such a policy. But sanctions must never be a substitute for a policy.

Sometimes I fear that this rather fundamental distinction is lost."

And as Paul Pillar noted earlier this week, it’s not even clear what the United States and its allies are actually trying to accomplish with their Iran policy, which is why Iranians often wonder if we actually want an agreement at all. He recommends the following approach:

"The P5 +1 should reformulate their stance to make two sorts of interim agreements possible. One would be a partial and balanced trade of some sanctions relief for some restrictions on the Iranian program. The other would be a statement of principles that describes in general terms, with the details to be negotiated later, what a final agreement about the program should look like. Arriving at mutually acceptable language for such a declaration, even without details, would still require some hard bargaining, but the effort would be worth it."

Assuming, of course, that we really do want a deal. But if you don’t really know what your objective is and you are misusing the various diplomatic and other tools at your disposal, then it is hard to see how you could ever achieve anything that might look like "success." Sadly, neither Bildt nor Pillar are likely to be in a position to implement a more promising approach.

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

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