Paul Pillar

The Nothing-But-Pressure Fallacy

As the nuclear talks with Iran hover in a sort of holding pattern with meetings below the senior level, there seems to be no end to advice from those saying the only chance of success is the exertion of pressure, more pressure and nothing but pressure. That makes about as much sense as, when encountering a door that needs to be pulled to open and having failed to open it by pushing, we respond by simply pushing harder. The latest such advice is in an op-ed from Michael Singh of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The West has given its best shot as far as sanctions are concerned, says Singh, and the sanctions by themselves are not sufficient and are not likely to be sufficient even given the passage of more time. Well, he's right about that. But taking Singh at his word that his objective is to achieve compromise at the negotiating table, he gives not the slightest hint of recognition of what needs to be brought to that table for compromise to happen.

Here's the relevant key concept from Sanctions 101: we induce the government that is the target of our sanctions to concede by getting it to understand that we will continue to punish it if it does not concede and will stop punishing it if it does. (Or, more incrementally, that we will start reducing the punishment if the other side starts conceding.) It's really that simple. And the story of stasis in the nuclear talks is also pretty simple. The Iranians have made it clear they are willing to make the key concession about no longer enriching uranium at the level that has raised fears about a “break-out” capability in return for sanctions relief. But the P5+1 have failed to identify what would bring such relief, instead offering only the tidbit of airplane parts and the vaguest of suggestions that they might consider some sort of relief in the future. The Iranians are thus left to believe that heavy pressure, including sanctions, will continue no matter what they do at the negotiating table, and that means no incentive to make more concessions.

If the oil sanctions aren't enough, what other pressure does Singh say should be used? One is “bolder” efforts, whatever that means, to oust the Assad regime in Syria, and regardless of whatever implications that may have for escalation of that conflict. Another is an ill-defined reference to “cultivating Iranians outside the narrow circle around” the supreme leader or “providing support to dissidents” in Iran. No mention is made of how to get around the inherently counterproductive aspect of outside efforts to manipulate internal Iranian politics, or how one more indication that regime change is the ultimate Western objective is supposed to make the current regime more interested in making concessions. Finally, Singh calls for more military saber rattling—as if the threat of a military attack is supposed to make the Iranians less, rather than more, interested in a nuclear deterrent to protect themselves from such attacks. That makes as much sense as pushing yet again on the “pull” door.

We probably should not take the purveyors of such advice at their word. Surely at least some of them, including probably Singh, are smart enough to understand the basics of Sanctions 101. Their objective evidently is not success at the negotiating table but instead the indefinite perpetuation of the Iranian nuclear issue for other reasons or the checking off of a box on a pre-war checklist.

The Obama administration, by contrast, would welcome negotiating success but evidently has calculated, perhaps mistakenly, that it would be too politically damaging domestically to bring to the negotiating table what would be necessary to achieve success. The administration is correctly attempting to ward off destructive Israeli action, although it is uncertain whether keeping the negotiating process trundling along at its current pace and trajectory for a few more months would be sufficient to do that. And yes, Governor Romney, if we are concerned about what would be most damaging to U.S. interests in the Middle East, the prospect of a new war begun by the state most capable of dragging in those interests is more worth worrying about than an Iranian nuclear weapon (which such a war would not prevent anyway and would be more likely to encourage).

Image: futureatlas.com