Diplomacy: Double negative is not always a positive

Economic sanctions have a rather poor record of success, and in case of Iran no one is considering a trend of stronger sanctions.

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (photo credit: REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez)
Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
(photo credit: REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez)
Iran has been steadily increasing its efforts to advance its nuclear program. It has established an impressive infrastructure and has produced enough 3.5 percent-enriched uranium, and some 20% enriched uranium, to suffice, if further enriched, for the production of several nuclear explosive devices within a relatively short time.
The “engagement” process, the diplomatic effort to achieve at least a short halt in Iran’s progress, has been failing for more than a decade, and the increasing sanctions levied by the United Nations Security Council, the European Union and the United States have done very little to assist the futile diplomatic process.
Globally speaking, economic sanctions have a rather poor record of success, and in the case of Iran no one is considering a different trend of stronger sanctions.
These, if applied, should hit Iranian pride and dignity, and should include ostracism from the world community, suspension from international fora (yes, even from the NPT review conferences that fail to condemn Iran) and sports events. Such measures could get Iran’s attention more than do the slow-moving economic sanctions with their extensive waivers and persistent world trade in oil and commodities.
If we listen to some voices emanating from Washington, DC, the sanctions are having an effect on the Iranian regime. How, then, can we explain the following: In a surprise move, US Secretary of State John Kerry “implored Congress... not to impose tough new sanctions on Iran, warning that such a move could disrupt diplomacy over Tehran’s disputed nuclear program at a delicate moment” (The Los Angeles Times, April 18, 2013). The logic of this is easy to understand – if the underlying premise is that Iran is willing to forgo its military nuclear ambitions and wants an agreement with the US. However, given the physical evidence and the history of Iranian deceit and concealment, this is naiveté at its best, and is a dangerous assumption for the nations of the region, and especially for Israel.
Secretary Kerry may have take his cue from a report by some 35 dignitaries, former US administration officials and outside experts, calling for a change in US policy, working towards a comprehensive agreement with Iran (“Strategic Options for Iran: Balancing Pressure with Diplomacy”; a 2013 paper from The Iran Project). In the Executive Summary of the report there appears the very reasonable statement: “A strengthened diplomatic track that includes the promise of sanctions relief in exchange for verifiable cooperation could help to end the standoff and produce a nuclear deal.”
On the other hand, the report says that “Sanctions-related hardships may be sowing the seeds of long-term alienation between the Iranian people and the United States. After 30 years of sanctioning and trying to isolate Iran, it seems doubtful that pressure alone will change the decisions of Iran’s leaders.” (As if there were no ongoing long-term alienation at present). Further on in the report, there is a very long list of “what Iran wants.” The one item blatantly missing from this list is “nuclear weapons capability.”
And therein lies the shaky foundation of the whole argument.
The report says that “Neither sanctions nor sanctions plus the threatened use of military force is likely on its own to motivate Iran’s leaders to reach a nuclear deal.” This implicitly assumes that given the right conditions, Iran and the US could reach an agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear capabilities while assuring the survival of the present regime, and a host of other achievements.
Given the urgency of the issue due to the rapid progress of the Iranian nuclear program, it is very unfortunate that both the secretary of state and The Iran Project behave as if there were all the time in the world to restart the diplomatic process, reduce the pressure on Iran and put all the cards on the diplomatic front.
Who says the Iranians have any use for this, with the exception of buying precious time? The suggested combination of sanctions easements, the very mild and only hinted-at US threat of military action and the obvious military nature of Iran’s nuclear ambitions is alarming.
How can so many negatives have a positive outcome? The author is a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security studies (INSS).