Vulnerable Iran?

I was on a television program a few days ago, and a brief exchange on Iran is still stuck in my craw. My interlocutor was convinced that the United States should engage Iran in state-to-state negotiations on its nuclear program. She also offered sharp criticism of the Bush approach to Iran, and in particular rhetorical failures, e.g., the use of the term “axis of evil” and a pointed refusal, if I recall her remarks correctly, to explicitly call for “mutual respect.” I actually agreed on this notion of a pervasive rhetorical failure, but my argument was that by declaring Iran part of an “axis of evil,” we actually limited our coercive options — that is, any punitive measures taken to retaliate against interference in Iraq would bring us closer to full-scale war. Had we taken a “softer” rhetorical line, perhaps we could have been “harder” in taking action against the IRGC. I also agreed that the Obama administration ought to engage Iran. But my argument was that the climate was more favorable to a negotiated settlement because of Iran’s economic vulnerability. Punitive economic measures could prove more effective. At this point, my co-panelist proceeded to tear into this notion: she noted, rightly, that Americans have been making a similar claim for 30 years, yet even during the darkest days of the Iran-Iraq war and $12 per barrel oil the Iranians never buckled under sanctions. And at that point, the segment ended. She also added a number of other remarks about Dennis Ross that I took exception to, but that’s neither here nor there.

I thought about her remarks, and I found myself a little frustrated by the format. For one thing, I didn’t make clear that it is multilateral sanctions that could make the difference. I figured I could make that point in the next round! The United States under President Obama has a rare opportunity to build a broader and deeper consensus on the threat posed by Iran’s weapons program.

Also, it seems odd to argue that because Iran didn’t buckle under economic pressure in the 1980s, it wouldn’t buckle now. Consider that: the relative value of heavier crudes (the kind Iran produces) has eroded since then, which has contributed to a deterioration of Iran’s strategic position in the region; the economic failures of the Iranian regime have mounted since the Iran-Iraq war, creating serious domestic pressures, e.g., labor disturbances, food shortages, minority unrest, etc.; even Iran’s economy is more exposed to the global economy, and so on. The Iran is in its exhausted post-Brezhnev, pre-Gorbachev phase.

The upside potential of playing ball is also much bigger. I’m not claiming that economic pressure will work. But the Iranian regime is a black box. External pressure has, as a friend of mine put it, non-linear effects on the regime’s behavior. Honestly, the idea that the failure of economic pressure in the 1980s means that economic pressure won’t work today reminds me of the tax gurus who claim that cutting taxes always makes sense.

That said, I think we need to be very careful when we consider imposing economic pressure via sanctions and other punitive measures. This approach has uneven impacts. It can definitely be a humanitarian disaster, as it was in Iraq, and it can definitely backfire. It’s by no means obvious that the quasi-blockade of Gaza, for example, achieved its political objectives, which is why the Israelis felt compelled to take military action. I just think it’s odd to take economic options off the table, particularly in light of the fact that any military option is going to yield even less attractive outcomes.

As for the “learn to live with it” option, I’d much rather see Britain surrender Trident, and I’d much rather we (continue to) steeply reduce the size of our own nuclear arsenal.