What would Alex George say about coercing Iran?

Stephen M. Walt – Foreign Policy March 14, 2013

Will the U.S. effort to coerce Iran succeed? For the past ten years or more, the United States has been engaged in coercive diplomacy with the Islamic Republic. Specifically, it has imposed increasingly punitive economic sanctions, repeatedly threatened to use force, and engaged in various covert acts of pressure, such as the Stuxnet virus attack. The campaign of escalating pressure has been accompanied by the demand that Iran end its nuclear enrichment program or, at a minimum, restrict it in ways that would make it impossible for Iran to even contemplate building a nuclear weapon.

This is precisely the sort of question that the late Alexander George and his colleagues examined in the book The Limits of Coercive Diplomacy, first published back in 1971. George defined “coercive diplomacy” as the use of military force or military threats “to persuade the opponent to do something, or to stop doing something, instead of bludgeoning him into doing it or physically preventing him from doing it.” The book examined three cases of this approach — the Laos crisis of 1961, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign in Vietnam and identified eight conditions that are associated with successful coercive diplomacy by the United States.

I studied with George as an undergraduate at Stanford and wrote my senior thesis on the same subject (my cases, if you’re curious, were the Gulf of Tonkin incidents, the seizure of the Pueblo, and the seizure of the Mayaguez.). So I thought I’d go back and look at George’s eight conditions and see what they might predict about the success/failure of U.S. efforts to coerce Iran today. Here goes:

1. Strength of U.S. motivation. Coercion is more likely to succeed when the coercer is highly motivated and resolved. It’s clear that the United States is pretty serious about this issue, even though Iran’s nuclear enrichment program doesn’t pose a direct threat to the United States itself (i.e., it’s not like Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962). And while the U.S. might be highly motivated to prevent Iranian development of an actual weapon, it is not clear how much the U.S. really cares about Iran having the theoretical potential to acquire a bomb as opposed to a real weapon. Among other things, denying them the theoretical capacity in perpetuity would be almost impossible. Washington would like Tehran to be as far away from a “breakout” capability as possible, but just how far is that? A month away? A year? In short, the actual strength of U.S. motivation here isn’t entirely clear, despite the tough talk we’ve heard from Obama and Biden in recent weeks. But let’s be conservative and score this in the plus column.

2. Asymmetry of motivation favoring the United States. Even assuming we care a lot, it is hard to believe that we care more about this issue than Tehran does. Iranian politicians of all kinds have expressed support for their nuclear energy program, and the history of bad blood between our two countries makes them especially reluctant to cave in to U.S. pressure. Moreover, as I argued a week ago, they have the additional incentive of proving to us (and others) that they can’t be blackmailed, because they don’t want to invite additional pressure by showing that blackmail works. Lastly, repeated U.S. threats (and the presence of nuclear arms in Israel, Pakistan, India, and Russia) gives Iran ample reason to seek at least a latent capability. Bottom line: This condition is not satisfied in this case. 

3. Clarity of American objectives. Having clear and well-understood goals aids coercion, because it lets the target know exactly what is being demanded and tells them what is not being sought. This condition is clearly absent in this case, although in theory it could be clarified through active diplomacy. If you were in Tehran, however, you’d probably be confused about what the U.S. really wants. Is the U.S. seeking to prevent an Iranian bomb? Certainly, but what else? Does Washington secretly share the Israeli goal of denying Iran a theoretical “weapons potential? Is the U.S. not-so-secretly interested in regime change, as some Congressional resolutions clearly state and as many Iranians suspect? And despite the tough talk about rejecting containment, etc., might the U.S. actually be willing to live with some Iranian enrichment, and might the US fall back on containment and deterrence if it had to? Nobody really knows. For the moment, therefore, this condition for successful coercive diplomacy is not met.

4. Sense of urgency to achieve the American objective. Coercion can be aided if the target becomes convinced time is running out and that it had better cut a deal. The Obama administration has explicitly sought to strengthen this condition by rejecting containment and saying that there is a “finite time limit” for negotiations. And Tehran may believe them. But that effort is undercut by the fact that there is no imminent “red line” (assuming Iran is not actively working on weaponization). Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has tried to impose red lines of his own, but he’s cried wolf so often on this issue that his warnings may not be believed and his redlines aren’t the same as Obama’s in any case. Plus, the IDF cannot destroy Iran’s nuclear potential on its own. So there are reasons to question whether the requisite urgency is present here. But let’s be conservative here too and say that it is.

5. Adequate domestic political support. President Obama clearly has support for his policy of coercive diplomacy. Most Americans don’t object to our squeezing Iran, don’t mind talking about military force, and overwhelmingly favor diplomacy over war. And that’s the rub: There’s hardly any serious support for going to war, except among die-hard neoconservatives and the hardline wing of the Israel lobby. The U.S. military isn’t pushing it and neither is the State Department, the intelligence services, the oil industry, or anyone else.

In his book, George argued that strong domestic support was especially necessary when pursuing the “strong form” of coercive diplomacy: i.e., the issuing of explicit demands or ultimatums. When domestic support is lacking, presidents have to rely on what he called the “try-and-see” approach: ratcheting up pressure but refraining from making demands with strict time limits. That’s why you haven’t seen him issue explicit ultimatums: Nobody really wants to have to carry out the implied threat when the deadline is up.

Bottom line: There’s “adequate” support here, but barely.

6. Usable military options. Obviously, trying to coerce someone with threats of force won’t work if there aren’t genuine options that the opponent recognizes. In this case, I’d score it positively but with some important caveats. If we want to, the United States can certainly do a lot of damage to Iran’s nuclear facilities (and other assets). In this narrow sense, therefore, Washington has “usable options.” But those options come with significant risks, including the very real possibility that it will convince Iran that it has no choice but to go full-bore for a deterrent. And even extensive American air strikes cannot eliminate Iran’s ability to build a nuclear weapon. It can always rebuild its enrichment capacity, bury the machinery deeper, etc. Moreover, a preventive war would keep U.S.-Iranian relations in the deep freeze for at least another decade and could easily give the clerical regime a new lease on life. So one might conclude that the U.S. does have “usable” options, but they’re aren’t especially attractive ones. And Iran knows that.

7. Opponent’s fear of unacceptable escalation. Thomas Schelling theorized the coercion (or what he called “compellence”) works primarily by playing on the target’s fear of what might happen if they do not comply. This criterion is difficult to gauge in advance, however, because opponents are obviously not going to admit publicly that they are worried about what the U.S. might do. On the contrary, they will claim not to fear escalation even if they are secretly quaking in their boots.  

One might argue that Iran’s infamous 2003 offer to negotiate a settlement — made shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq — shows that Tehran was deeply worried and eager to avoid the same fate that befell Saddam. Maybe so, but the subsequent debacle in Iraq and the U.S. failure in Afghanistan have almost certainly alleviated any fears they might have had back then. Iran’s leaders know we aren’t going to invade the country and they probably know that air strikes can’t bring down their regime. I’m sure they don’t want the U.S. to attack, but I doubt their fear is great enough to convince them to run up the white flag and comply with all of our present demands. Score this one on the “minus” side.

8. Clarity concerning the precise terms of settlement. It is hard to coerce someone if they don’t know what sort of concessions on their part will bring the pressure to an end. And the more ambiguity there is, the more they will fear a series of open-ended demands or an “agreement” that quickly breaks down amid mutual recriminations. Successful coercive diplomacy requires each side to be confident that there is a deal within sight, one that gives each at least something of what they want and in which each side understands exactly what is expected of the other.

This condition is presently lacking. As my colleague Nicholas Burns likes to emphasize, this gap exists in good part because we haven’t had any real contact with Iran for more than thirty years, and we don’t have any good sense of what their bottom lines might be. At the same time, it is hard for Iran’s negotiators to know what the U.S. (or the P5+1) would be willing to accept either. Among other things, the fact that AIPAC and its lackeys in Congress keep trying to tie Obama’s hands in the negotiations actually cripples our ability to conduct serious diplomacy, because Iran can’t be sure that Obama could deliver on any offer he might make. If domestic politics here at home make it impossible to offer Iran any meaningful carrots (such as lifting sanctions in exchange for Iranian concessions) and turns the de facto U.S. position into one of demanding complete Iranian capitulation, then there obviously won’t be a deal.

So where does this leave us? By my scoring, only four of George’s conditions for successful coercive diplomacy are presently met (and remember, I was pretty conservative in evaluating the criteria). Assuming his framework is a useful guide, therefore, it is hard to be confident that military pressure on Iran will yield a positive diplomatic outcome. Which is yet another reason why I think we would be better off taking the threat of force off the table (thereby making it look less like blackmail and reducing Iran’s interest in a latent or breakout capacity) and making the acceptable terms of a deal more explicit.

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