A strategy based purely on coercion risks convincing Tehran that it has no choice but to weaponize.
The on-again, off-again talks between Iran and the United States are back on, after a few months of sabre-rattling, assignations, and computer viruses. The latest word from Washington is one of guarded optimism, but few observers are holding out much hope, the level of mistrust seems too high, and both sides seem determined to force the other to back down. Nevertheless, the West needs to remain committed to a negotiated solution in its standoff with Iran. The costs of a direct confrontation are too high, and, despite the way intelligence reports have been portrayed in the media, there still appears to be some room for compromise.
In the past 12 months, both the International Atomic Energy Agency and the American intelligence community have presented evidence that suggests that Iran has not only misled the international community concerning its enrichment program, but was also developing the technology necessary to weaponize its nuclear capacity. While both of these assessments were pessimistic about Iranian intentions, a glimmer of hope remains. On Jan. 31, James Clapper, the American Director of National Intelligence, said that despite Tehran’s apparent research into weaponization, “we don’t believe they’ve actually made the decision to go ahead with a nuclear weapon.” He argued that their program has instead been intended to give the Iranian leadership the option to pursue weaponization if they saw fit. Clapper went on to add that, given the technological advancements Iran has made, the question now was not one of technology, but of political will, and that Tehran appeared to approach the issue in terms of a rational cost-benefit analysis rather than an ideological mission. If Clapper is right, then there is a chance to convince Tehran that not building a bomb makes more sense than building one.
The West needs to make negotiations work. Coercive diplomacy alone has a very poor track record as a strategy. States rarely respond to threats of military action, even when they are extremely credible. Just like states in the West, decision-makers in Tehran will fear that backing down once will only encourage their enemies to make further threats in the future. It will also make the leadership look weak to the domestic audience, something the embattled regime cannot risk. Similarly, sanctions almost never work, at least when the target state is being pressured to make concessions on a strategic issue. According to Robert Pape’s oft-quoted 1997 study, sanctions have been effective in less than five per cent of such cases. Regimes would rather suffer the economic pain than commit political suicide. Moreover, with Iran’s energy resources, they are more likely to gamble on the potential of Asian markets than concede in the face of western embargoes. Rather than scaring Tehran into complying, a strategy based purely on coercion will likely convince Tehran that it has no choice but to weaponize.
If threats fail, the costs of actually using military force outweigh the benefits. Short of a full-scale invasion, the effectiveness of a military strike is questionable. Significant parts of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure are buried below ground and difficult to destroy, other parts have still not yet been identified, and all of it could be reconstituted relatively quickly even if it was destroyed. The hardest part of nuclear technology is mastering the knowledge, not building the facilities. At the same time, while sanctions, internal divisions, and the regional impact of the Arab Spring may have weakened Iran, it retains the ability to cause havoc in the region. While its ties to Hezbollah have been stretched by the conflict in Syria, they have not been severed. Moreover, the fighting in Syria has provided Tehran with another venue in which it can extend its particular brand of influence. Already, reports of Iranian involvement have begun to circulate. The Assad regime is now tied closer than ever to Tehran, and even if it falls, Iran will have the capacity to disrupt any attempts at post-conflict reconstruction. Perhaps more important than all of this, it is impossible to gauge the impact of another war on the fragile processes of democratization going on in countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and Libya.
The West could, of course, try to promote regime change from within. However, there is little sign that the regime will collapse due to either sanctions or the demonstration effect of the Arab Spring. While there remains a great deal of political frustration due to the 2009 elections, the Green Movement has not been able to translate it into effective political action. Their leadership is isolated and neither labour nor the bazaar has heeded their calls. Without the economic clout of these two groups, the impact of the Green Movement will be muted, and the regime will be able to stand up to street protests for a very long time.
For negotiations to work, the balance between carrots and sticks has to be just right. The West will need to foreswear regime change and offer both economic incentives and a voice for Tehran in regional security dialogue. These issues have been discussed in the past, but the message has been lost in the rhetoric and background noise emanating from American domestic politics. Of course, the stick will also have to be part of the message. However, the West has over-relied on it in the past. If it continues to do so, it will drive the Iranians over the nuclear threshold.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.