Analysis & Opinions - Iran Matters

Coercive Diplomacy in WMD Negotiations

| February 27, 2014

As the world watches whether Iran will give up its nuclear work, Tehran is watching what will happen to Bashar al-Assad once all of his chemical weapons are destroyed. While seemingly unrelated, the nuclear negotiations with Iran and the (halting) disarmament of Syria share a strategic connection. At stake is the efficacy of coercive diplomacy—the use of threats to persuade another actor to change its behavior.

Coercion is an important tool of statecraft because it allows a state to achieve its objectives "on the cheap"—without resorting to war. The possibility that the United States might employ military force no doubt contributed to Bashar al-Assad's decision to give up his chemical arsenal.

Nobel Prize winner Thomas Schelling wrote almost 50 years ago that coercion works if punishment for miscreants is contingent on their behavior. The threat "one more step and I shoot," Schelling wrote, would only be effective if one added, "And if you stop I won't."  Reassurance inherent in this statement is critical for coercion to work. The speaker threatens devastating consequences for noncompliance, yet promises to lift the threat if the target does as he is told. "To be coercive, violence has to be anticipated," Schelling explained, "And it has to be avoidable by accommodation."

History provides useful illustrations. President Kennedy quarantined Cuba in October 1962, and threatened Moscow with war if the Soviets did not withdraw their missiles.  The Cuban Missile Crisis ended once the Soviets agreed to comply—and, as is now well known, after Washington secretly agreed to withdraw its Jupiter missiles from Turkey, as well as promised not to invade Cuba to try to remove Castro from power. This was a coercive success, but one that involved a quid pro quo.

In negotiations over weapons of mass destruction, quid pro quos are particularly important. No rational actor can be expected to give up a deterrent capability if there is a possibility that in doing so he would be increasing the possibility of becoming a target for regime change. Yet, this fundamental idea was seriously damaged by the Libyan example. In 2003 Muammar Qaddafi gave up his nuclear weapons program and for several years basked in international limelight, including by giving lengthy diatribes at the United Nations. Yet, in 2011, a NATO military coalition enabled the domestic rebellion to overthrow (and eventually kill) the Libyan dictator.

This created a damaging perception: if you give up weapons of mass destruction, the United States just might decide to violate its promises and overthrow you.  Those who make this argument point to Iraq (no nuclear deterrent—Saddam overthrown) and North Korea (a nuclear deterrent—Kim Jong Un succeeded his father Kim Jong Il with no end in sight for the Kim dynasty).  Both countries have engaged in horrific human rights abuses; the only factor that accounts for their wildly different fates was that one of them had nuclear weapons to keep the superpower at bay, and the other did not.

The Syria deal—Assad gives up his chemical weapons, but stays in power—has the potential of resurrecting this fundamental quid pro quo principle that enables coercive diplomacy to work. This will happen, of course, only if Assad actually stays in power.  The tragic irony is that it is in the U.S. strategic nonproliferation interest—beyond the security interest in sidelining the al Qaeda elements who have infiltrated the Syrian rebel groups—that Assad does not fall. If he is deposed—especially due to U.S. pressure, or at the hands of U.S.-armed opposition—the Libya lesson will be solidified. If the Syria deal goes sour, it will be much more difficult to persuade Iran not to press ahead with nuclear work, and, likewise, to convince Saudi Arabia that it should not try to get nuclear weapons from Pakistan.

"Perceptions are reality in international politics," Mike Mansfield, former U.S. ambassador to Japan, once wrote. The U.S. would be well-advised to pay attention to the perceptions its actions create. Iran is carefully watching whether Assad without chemical weapons will suffer the same fate as did the dictators in a non-nuclear Iraq and a denuclearized Libya.

Dr. Eugene Kogan is a Stanton Nuclear Security Postdoctoral Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Kogan, Eugene B..“Coercive Diplomacy in WMD Negotiations.” Iran Matters, February 27, 2014.