Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School
Sanctions to Spur Negotiations: Mostly a Bad Strategy
From recent events, it is clear that United Nations Security Council's Resolution 1929 was adopted in order to force Iran to sit down at the negotiating table and accept the West's conditions pertaining to Iran's nuclear policy. From the West's perspective, Iran will only change its nuclear position when it is confronted by meaningful international pressure. Such a view shows the West's—and especially the United States'—lack of understanding of the role and importance of Iran's nuclear program in its domestic and international politics. Contrary to what this misguided policy believes, more international pressure will compound Iran's assertiveness and unwillingness to relent vis-à-vis its nuclear policy.
There are three perspectives regarding the West's aims in adopting this latest round of sanctions against Iran: sanctions in the hope of provoking conflict; sanctions aiming to contain Iran; and sanctions to spur negotiations.
First, the main goal of these new sanctions is to prepare global public opinion for conflict with Iran, as well as to weaken Iran's economy in order to set the stage for a potential conflict. The United States pursued just such a strategy prior to attacking Iraq. Global public opinion remains skeptical of U.S. global ambitions—a hangover from the unilateralism and militarism undertaken in the first term of the George W. Bush administration.
Because of its declared policy of "change," the Barack Obama administration will need to get Security Council authorization for initiating any potential war and building the necessary consensus among the veto-power holders will be neither a straightforward nor easy task. The United States would also find the opening up of a third conflict zone extremely precarious, if not well-nigh impossible with which to cope. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are far from over, and observers suggest that the United States will never achieve its projected ambitions and therefore will eventually be compelled to withdraw from these two seemingly endless conflicts.
There exists of course the issue of an Israeli military operation against Iran's nuclear facilities. Observers inside Iran believe that because of the existing domestic crises such as the inability to adequately deal with Hamas and the sentiments of global public opinion with respect to its disproportionate response to the Gaza flotilla crisis, Israel is not in the position to conduct a military operation against Iran. As in the past Israel prefers to pressure the United States behind the scenes and plead with the latter to conduct a military operation against Iran.
Second, the new sanctions have been adopted to contain Iran's successful efforts in establishing regional and global political coalitions. Because Iran's peaceful nuclear activities are in accord with the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) rules and regulations and have international legitimacy, Iran can participate in new coalitions with rising powers and the critics of the dominant Western trends in the NPT in order to enhance its nuclear policy.
In this respect, the Tehran Nuclear Declaration (May 17, 2010) and Brazil and Turkey's acceptance of Iran's right to continue enriching uranium on its soil, supported subsequently by other countries, afford Iran the upper hand in future negotiations. It is thus necessary from the West's perspective to contain Iran's power. The new sanctions were rapidly adopted, drawing a fault-line in the sand and allowing the opponents and proponents to take their positions and be identified. And because the West has many economic and political levers of pressure and influence, many countries were forced to accept the West's new policy vis-à-vis Iran.
And finally third, sanctions are necessary in order to negotiate from a position of strength and thus ought to be considered diplomacy by other means. Here the belief is that coercive and meaningful sanctions will change Iran's nuclear policy. They are also essential for preventing a possible war, especially on the Israeli side. Being more effective, the current multilateral sanctions should be advanced further by the unilateral sanctions of states. Accordingly, President Obama signed the gasoline sanctions adopted by the U.S. Congress and a few other Western and European countries did or are currently doing the same.
Challenging the latter perspective, one should argue that no political faction or wing in Iran claims that new sanctions will not impact Iran's economy and as even noted by Dr. Ali-Akbar Salehi, the Head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, sanctions will slow the pace of Iran's nuclear activities. But the fact of the matter is that sanctions will not change Iran's nuclear position. Because beyond the issue of energy and technological advancement, this program is an identity-value issue and relates to Iran's regional and global roles and status.
Meanwhile, since sanctions and economic constraints will directly impact ordinary Iranians, they will intensify the current sense of distrust towards the West and especially the United States in all political trends and people, subsequently resulting in national mobilization and unity, thereby strengthening the hand of the Iranian government to resist the sanctions. This is the complete opposite of the result desired by the West. Here even unilateral sanctions by the United States and European countries will have a more destructive effect on the two sides' relations.
The policy of sanctions, not only will not change Iran's nuclear policy at this stage, but in both the short term and long term will bring about negative political-security and economic implications for the West's interests. In the short term, the new sanctions will increase the level of tension in the region. For example, economic embargo and sea cargo inspections will potentially (even inadvertently) increase the peril of military clashes between Iran and those countries willing to implement the sanctions. This issue is particularly very risky with respect to Iran and the neighboring Arab countries in the Persian Gulf. Since these countries are dependent on the U.S. security umbrella, they have to uncritically throw in their lot with the United States. This precarious situation could jeopardize their interests as any sustainable economic growth and development in the region requires the preservation of security and stability.
Meanwhile, new sanctions can escalate the tension of various other regional political-security issues. At present, the United States is engaged in two wars in Iran's neighborhood. The continued complicated crisis in Pakistan and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict remain serious challenges for the United States and the West. Starting another war with Iran, especially if initiated by Israel, will destabilize the whole region from the Mediterranean to the borders of China. Obviously this could have extremely dangerous repercussions for the West and U.S. strategic interests in the region.
Also, the impact of sanctions on banning foreign investments in Iran's gas and oil sectors will have damaging effects on Western long-term interests. A dearth of Iranian oil and gas production or inadequate use of Iran's production capacities on the world energy market may result in a decrease in the international energy supply. This will increase the price of oil and gas in the long term and give the upper hand to rival actors like Russia in supplying and controlling the price of fossil fuels, having damaging effects on Western and especially European economies.
Therefore, although the "sanctions for negotiation" policy may at first glance be seen as a diplomatic success for the United States and its allies, in practice it will have paradoxical consequences for containing Iran or changing its nuclear policy. Undoubtedly, the new sanctions will deepen the existing distrust between Iran and the West and have the potential of leading both sides to a dead-end and lose-lose game over nuclear negotiations and related issues. The West must find a sustainable solution based on a win-win strategy and relative satisfaction of both sides.
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