Luers, Pickering and Walsh NYRB Op-edPosted: July 29, 2013
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.