Luers, Pickering and Walsh NYRB Op-ed

I know this piece came out a couple of weeks ago, and I saw it flying around listserves and Twitter at the time, but I just now got around to reading it myself.  I think it deserves all the buzz it got. Its a really great piece and reads very insightfully and fairly about the current state of affairs between the West and Iran, and the opportunities presented by this moment. I think its analysis is very useful, and I agree 100% with the authors’ prescriptions.

One of the best sections of the piece is the authors’ discussion of the coercive policies of the United States against Iran, including sanctions:


Washington could continue with the same approach it has followed since the fall of the Shah, namely, a “two-track” policy based primarily on sanctions and isolation that does not exclude diplomacy. While American-led international sanctions have damaged the Iranian economy and demonstrated the world’s opposition to Iran’s nuclear program, they have done little to change Iran’s actions or policies.

One alternative would be to increase pressure. And indeed, many in Washington believe that more sanctions and threats of military action are the right response. Under a policy of “coercive diplomacy,” the US would give Iran a clear ultimatum: agree to US demands on nuclear issues by a certain date, or the US will take military action.9 The former diplomat Dennis Ross wrote recently that the Obama administration should make Iran’s leaders an offer they must take or leave within a set period of time, and he implies that the option of military force should be available if they reject the offer. He contends that “coercive diplomacy succeeds when threats are believed and the game playing and manipulation stop.”10

Some advocates of coercive diplomacy argue that such an approach helped President Kennedy pressure Khrushchev to withdraw Soviet nuclear missiles from Cuba. But a final agreement was reached when Kennedy gave Khrushchev a face-saving exit and offered to withdraw America’s Jupiter missiles from Turkey. A few years earlier, when China shelled the islands of Matsu and Quemoy in an attempt to intimidate and threaten Taiwan, President Eisenhower demonstrated his own desire to avoid ultimatums. Rather than define the point at which the US would take military action, he said that he would “just confuse” the press when asked what he intended to do.

Ike took to heart Clausewitz’s insight that a nation fighting for survival will persevere regardless of pressure. More coercion will only reinforce the belief among Iran’s leaders that America’s goal remains destruction of the regime, hardening their resistance and making diplomatic progress less attainable. On military action, it is worth remembering what President Johnson’s national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, said in the 1990s about the Vietnam War. What surprised him most, he acknowledged, was “the endurance of the enemy.”11 Bundy admitted that he had placed too much faith in “the power of coercion.”

“Coercive diplomacy” is an oxymoron. Invariably the coercive side dominates the diplomatic side. Intransigent enemies who threaten US interests and security cannot be ignored; yet the United States’ experience in solving such problems by the use of coercive action such as war or sanctions that end in war has been highly costly in human lives, resources, and its global position during the past sixty years. As in Vietnam, coercion has often failed to achieve US objectives or a negotiated settlement that gave us most of what we needed. Yet the US has been impressively successful in achieving its objectives when it has placed diplomacy above punitive measures.

Pressure has helped get Iran to negotiate; but diplomatic negotiation cannot succeed unless each side gets some of what it needs and unless each side comes to believe that the other wants an agreement and is willing to comply with it. At present the US has imposed not only an arms ban but a nearly complete economic embargo on Iran, although Iran can still gain access to the US financial system through foreign banks and other institutions. We are not proposing a preemptive suspension of sanctions without firm agreements from Iran on nuclear-related issues. But we do believe that the piling on of more coercive sanctions and ultimatums, particularly when there are new hopes for the diplomatic process to get underway, will undermine or even preclude the possibility of negotiating a nuclear deal.

That’s some gold right there. And I hope the “sanction first, ask questions later” crowd in DC is listening.


6 Comments on “Luers, Pickering and Walsh NYRB Op-ed”

  1. yousaf says:

    I don’t see what there is even to negotiate about via diplomacy.

    Iran’s file was sent the UNSC based on CSA non-compliance — a highly subjective finding (See e.g. Pierre Goldschmidt’s article in Survival).

    In 2008 an IAEA report related that all legal CSA issues had been resolved. Only some ‘concerns’ about ‘possible’ military dimension of Iran’s nuclear program remained. In 2007 the DNI said (and maintains now) that IRI has not made any decision to weaponize.

    But despite the fact that CSA legal issues have been addressed and Iran’s nuclear program not being geared towards militarization, the file is still hung-up in the UNSC based upon an unachievable hurdle of proving, in essence, that nuclear technology is not dual use. It always will be of a dual use nature.

    Now (i.e. since 2008) that Iran is complaint with its CSA, all sanctions should be lifted.

    The diplomacy should center around what Iran could be given to gain the greater inspections’ access, above and beyond Iran’s CSA, that the West desires.

    No ‘coercive’ diplomacy is needed for that: it is a simple negotiation of what sweetners will sufficient to induce Iran to e.g. ratify the AP.

    • Bibi Jon says:

      “an unachievable hurdle of proving, in essence, that nuclear technology is not dual use.”
      In a sense Iran is overcoming that hurdle. Empirically. Every decade that goes by, and every increment of advancement and growth in Iran’s nuclear technology infrastructure and capability which nevertheless produces no nuclear weapons, helps surmount the hurdle. No?

      • yousaf says:

        Yes, but what the UNSC/P5+1/USG seems to be demanding is an end to the capability to weaponize. Such capability is inherent in being “dual-use”.

        Thus the UNSC/P5+1/USG objections will not likely be overcome. They are asking for more than the NPT/CSA.

    • Nick says:

      I think the negotiation is to loosen the knife on the neck of Iran’s economy by having IRI agree to limiting its enrichment capability. Because a tighter inspection regime is necessary but not sufficient to keep IRI from having a viable enrichment program.

  2. Fiorangela says:

    re: “On military action, it is worth remembering what President Johnson’s national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, said in the 1990s about the Vietnam War. What surprised him most, he acknowledged, was “the endurance of the enemy.”11 Bundy admitted that he had placed too much faith in “the power of coercion.””

    = = =
    This thought is only tangentially related to the above quote, but, fwiw —

    Jeff Engel spoke at the Bush School at Texas A&M about the book he edited concerning the Persian Gulf War. Engel said the archives revealed that Bush and his advisors did not have plans for a military action to take Saddam because the were absolutely positive — 99%, I believe Engel said — that the Iraqi people would rise up and overthrow Saddam himself. The advisors, chief among them Brent Scowcroft, I was surprised to learn, were convinced that Saddam was so hated by the Iraqi people in 1991 that they would embrace an invading army rather then coalesce around their own.

    What is more, Engel said that he was certain the same mindset still prevails among Washington decision makers.

    In other words, Washington foreign policy elites have not learned a damn thing about human nature, the human quest for self-determination, the capacity to resist incursions on a people’s sovereignty.

    Prof. Joyner posted an item a while back, focusing on an article by someone named Einhorn. Joyner used a phrase that should be plastered on every Metro car in Washington: “Who the f%@k do you think you are?”

    In 1991, having ‘won’ the Cold War, Bush I and his counselors clearly thought they had the right to take charge of the world, starting with the Middle East/Iraq as a demonstration case.

    How’s that workin’ out for ya’ll?

  3. Don Bacon says:

    The authors don’t seem to be aware of some basic facts.

    “The administration should demonstrate carefully that it seriously seeks a change in the relationship, not a change in the regime.” — Not possible — AIPAC won’t allow it.

    On sanctions, the authors fail to realize that sanctions have had the reverse effect of that intended. Sanctions have not influenced Iran nuclear policy in favor of the West, in fact they have done the opposite. Iran has abandoned the Additional Protocol and the Brazil-Turkey 20% enrichment deal because of sanctions. Iran has also expanded, protected and modernized its uranium enrichment facilities. In recent testimony, DNI Clapper said: “Iran is growing more autocratic at home and more assertive abroad.”

    Also not understood by the authors is that sanctions affect many parties, not just Iran, as I have commented elsewhere. And some of them are farcical.
    Example: The US has imposed sanctions on Niksima Food and Beverage JLT, a frozen yogurt company based in the United Arab Emirates, saying the company has been engaged in a transaction for the purchase of petrochemical products from Iran.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s