Coercing Iran

October 20, 2010 Topic: SanctionsNuclear ProliferationRogue States Region: Iran Blog Brand: Paul Pillar

Coercing Iran

What exactly is so dangerous about Iran's nuclear program?

Ken Pollack’s article in these spaces about policy toward Iran is worth close attention, mostly because he explains clearly some of the reasons that the use of military force as a supposed solution to the problem of Iran’s nuclear program would be folly. Not only would such a resort to war elicit a wide assortment of reactions by Iran and others that would be highly harmful to U.S. interests; such an act would be at least as likely to speed up Iranian development of a nuclear weapon as to slow it down, given subsequent Iranian determination to redouble efforts in that direction. There are additional detrimental consequences that could be mentioned, but the ones Pollack adduces are enough to show that this course of action would be a disaster for the United States.

Pollack’s alternative prescription is pressure and more pressure—or to put it less simplistically, to ratchet up and refine the pressure already being exerted on Iran. He describes in detail the refinements he has in mind, but he barely mentions other important issues that, unless they are adequately addressed, leave us exerting pressure amid a vacuum.

One issue is why this Iranian nuclear business should be such a preoccupation in the first place. I.e., what exactly is the danger we are trying to avert, and what makes it so dangerous? I happen to agree with what seems to be the consensus of the vast majority of people west of Khorramshahr (or at least west of Eastport) that Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapon would on balance be undesirable, and more specifically undesirable from the standpoint of U.S. interests. But that proposition should not just be assumed. Nuclear proliferation has varied and complex effects, some of which are more harmful than others (and some of which may not be harmful at all). Unless we analyze the proposition rather than assuming it, we do not know how serious a danger is involved and therefore to what lengths and at what costs we should be willing to go to avert it. That sort of analysis is missing from nearly all the commentary on this subject, including Pollack’s.

Whenever anyone dares to suggest that we could live with an Iranian nuclear weapon, the usual response is that no deterrence relationship with Iran would be stable because the Iranian leaders are wild-eyed fanatics who could not be trusted not to do something crazy or even suicidal. That response is always just an assertion, not supported by analysis or by reference either to the historical record of deterrence with regimes that seemed crazier than this one or to the Islamic Republic’s own record of behavior. (On the latter aspect, see Bruce Riedel’s recent analysis in The National Interest.)

In the only paragraph in his piece that addresses any of this subject, Pollack takes the different approach of disparaging nuclear deterrence in general, saying there are “no guarantees of success” and “failure is invariably catastrophic”. Of course—but to make that observation as an argument for not tolerating someone else’s nuclear force would mean not only dismissing a lot of Cold War history but also throwing up our arms in despair over nuclear deterrence relationships that we continue to have to this day with the likes of Russia and China.

So the proposition that Iranian development of a nuclear weapon would be a really, really awful thing that we should assume major costs and risks to avoid trundles along as one of those unquestioned bits of received wisdom that in the past has gotten the United States into trouble, including some costly wars. Although Pollack deserves credit for explicitly rejecting the war option in this case, his acquiescence in the trundling plays into the hands of those who have not rejected it and who aver, like Senator John McCain, that “there's only one thing worse than military action against Iran and that is a nuclear-armed Iran.”

Another important issue, which is highly relevant to everything Pollack says about pressure but to which he gives scant attention, is the positive side—the carrot side—of trying to influence the policies of the Iranian regime. In an essay of about 6,000 words with plenty of detail about how sanctions and other pressures can be improved, he mentions this only in very general terms in a couple of brief paragraphs, and even then mostly in the context of making the pressure palatable to third countries.

The benefits that the targeted regime can reasonably expect to receive if it changes its behavior in the desired direction should not be handled as a mere afterthought. It is half of any attempt at influence, every bit as important as the pressure half. If the Iranian regime is ever to change direction in response to even a new, improved, Pollack-designed model of sanctions and pressures, it will not be a simple crying of uncle. It will be because Iranian decision-makers confidently see better days ahead if they change. A cogent strategy of pressure thus needs to include a more detailed analysis of what a reformed Iranian thought process will look like. It also needs some way of building enough trust, which is plainly lacking now, for Iranian decision-makers to believe that the United States is not just seeking to overthrow their regime and will deliver on its promises if Tehran does change policies.

This is related to yet another missing ingredient in both Pollack’s essay and the vast bulk of commentary in this country about Iran: a discussion of how much of the Iranian behavior we find objectionable—including behavior involving the nuclear program—is a response to a well-founded Iranian perception of U.S. hostility and of the United States posing a threat to Iran. Pollack does get into this topic in discussing the ultimate act of hostility—an armed attack—which he correctly notes would lead the Iranians to conclude that rapid development of a nuclear weapon was more necessary than ever. But the current level of open U.S. animosity toward the Islamic Republic, while short of war, is sufficiently high that the same dynamic already is occurring to a lesser degree.

Although Iranian leaders’ assertions that they are only interested in the generation of electrical power are a lie, it is not a foregone conclusion that, unless they are pressured out of it, the Iranians will construct a nuclear weapon. Iranian decisions yet to be made about the direction of Tehran's nuclear program will hinge at least as much on how much U.S. hostility Iranian leaders perceive as on how much U.S. pressure they feel.

A common cognitive distortion that psychologists have repeatedly observed in their laboratories—and that political scientists have observed in international affairs—is the mistaken belief that when others behave nastily it is because nastiness is in their nature but when they behave nicely they are reacting to something we are doing. Pollack’s piece, with its portrayal of an Iranian regime that is controlled by hardliners hard-wired to be troublesome and of U.S. pressures that could only improve that regime’s behavior and not worsen it, illustrates that distortion, as does much other commentary on Iran. We need to overcome our own blinders before we have any hope of the Iranians overcoming theirs.


(Illustration by Peter Welleman)