As the Obama administration ramps up the sanctions pressure on Iran to accept meaningful curbs on its nuclear program, it is following a strategy of coercive diplomacy that has a fundamental design flaw. Consequently, President Obama is in danger of achieving the opposite of his intention: Iran may well decide that rather than negotiate a compromise, its best choice is actually to cross the nuclear weapons threshold, with fateful consequences for all.
Obama’s premise is that only by bringing the Iranian regime to its knees, through sanctions on its central bank and concerted efforts to reduce its oil exports, will it give up on its nuclear-weapons aspirations. The fact that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has now himself labeled the sanctions “crippling,” and that Iran’s nuclear negotiators announced last week that they were ready to come back to the table, have been taken as evidence that the president’s strategy is working. That judgment is at best premature, at worst wishful thinking.
Iran has not slowed its production of enriched uranium. On the contrary, the regime announced earlier this month it was building an additional enrichment plant with more efficient centrifuges. Nor has it cooperated with International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, who wrongly assumed that the announcement of a decision to come back to the table would result in a greater Iranian willingness to address their concerns.
Defenders of the current strategy will explain Iran’s continued defiance as a necessary prelude to concessions. More likely, what we are seeing are the reflexive reactions of a regime that believes its back is to the wall. The worst thing the Iranian supreme leader could do in such circumstances is show weakness, especially if he fears that his internal opposition could exploit it to challenge his regime from within.
And if he looks around his neighborhood he can see evidence that submitting his nuclear program to international controls could invite military intervention to topple him. That’s what happened to both Saddam Hussein and Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. On the other hand, the North Korean leadership’s defiant determination to develop nuclear weapons seems to have protected it from intervention.
If the supreme leader has indeed reached the conclusion that defiance is the best way to ensure the survival of his regime, then we have entered a vicious circle.
As Iran presses on with its nuclear program it comes closer and closer to Israel’s red line of a threshold weapons capability. That makes the Israelis ever more nervous and determined to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities before it is too late for them. That in turn leads the Obama administration to ratchet up the sanctions to persuade the Israelis that there is a viable alternative to a preventive strike. And as those sanctions become ever more crippling, the Iranians conclude that they have no choice but to press ahead in acquiring the ultimate means of assuring the regime’s survival. That alarms the Israelis, and the vicious circle spins again. At a certain point, miscalculation or desperation could lead one side to strike.
There is an additional dimension to this vicious circle that reinforces its negative dynamic. In order to give sanctions time to have their desired impact, Obama’s military advisers warn constantly about the negative consequences of an Israeli military strike. That signals to the Iranians that the United States will restrain the Israelis.
But the Israelis see public statements as undermining the effectiveness of their threat of force and Obama’s insistence that “all options are on the table.” And that reinforces their conviction that sooner or later they will have to take matters into their own hands.
Election-year politics also reinforce the negative dynamics. To overcome perceptions in the American Jewish community that he is unfriendly to Israel, Obama has made much of his steadfast commitment to Israel’s security — something we are likely to hear a good deal about this week when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the White House and Obama addresses the pro-Israel lobby’s annual convention. Even though the president will loudly declare that he will not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, his Republican opponents will undoubtedly charge that Obama has already conceded the case to Iran. This election-year ratcheting up of threat rhetoric then reinforces the Iranian urge to respond defiantly.
The only way out of the vicious circle is for Khamenei to understand that Obama is not seeking his overthrow — that behind the negotiating door lies a path to Iran’s peaceful use of nuclear power and not a corridor to the gallows. But how, while pursuing sanctions designed to cut Iran’s economic jugular, can Obama credibly signal this to Khamenei without opening himself up to the charge of weakness? Any hint of reassurance to the Iranian regime will surely be seized upon by his Republican rivals as a sign of appeasement.
Sadly, the dynamics of the current situation appear to make conflict inevitable. We are now engaged in a three-way game of chicken in which for Khamenei, Netanyahu and even Obama, physical or political survival makes blinking more dangerous than confrontation.
By Martin Indyk, the director of the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution and the author, with Kenneth Lieberthal and Michael O’Hanlon, of the new book Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy.