As 2010 began, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki intensified the nuclear standoff between Iran and the United States when he announced that by the end of the month the West must accept Tehran's counterproposal to a U.N.-brokered deal to meet Iran's nuclear fuel needs. Iran's counteroffer rejects a plan that the West insists had been agreed upon in principle to swap Tehran's low enriched uranium for ready-to-use nuclear fuel. Instead Iran has proposed that it purchase finished fuel outright and that it trade that fuel for smaller quantities of its more highly enriched uranium.
Mottaki's announcement occurred as demands for tough new sanctions against Iran were being made in Washington--e.g., in late December the House passed a bill that targets Iran's gasoline imports. Recent news reports indicate that the United States will seek U.N. Security Council support for a new round of targeted sanctions on nuclear actors within Iran (although China has rejected any such action at present).
Washington has ample reason to support further sanctions. Tehran continues to defy U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding an end to its uranium enrichment, provides support for terrorist groups, and violently represses domestic dissent after what many agree was a fraudulent presidential election. It is true that both the House bill and other Obama administration proposals to freeze the assets of Iranian banks, select Iranian elites, and the leadership of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps may enforce crippling sanctions on the country. But they may not be able to have any real impact on the regime.
The problem with sanctions. The bitter irony is that the proposed U.S. sanctions will fail to halt Iran's nuclear program or to improve Tehran's human rights record. Sanctions force compliance only about one-third of the time. That ratio is even worse for trade sanctions. Sanctions must engage the target, not just enrage it. So sanctions that are excessively punitive and that merely isolate a country frequently fail (e.g., North Korea). They succeed when they provide a road map to the target country for continued engagement when it achieves certain goals. Furthermore, proposed U.S. sanctions are intended to push Tehran to abandon its nuclear project. Yet history shows that only under the correct conditions has an astute mix of narrowly targeted sanctions combined with versatile incentives led countries to denuclearize. Such a sanctions-stimulated nuclear reversal occurred in Ukraine, South Africa, and Libya in concert with clear indications from the country or countries enforcing sanctions that good behavior would lead to their immediate end, new security guarantees, and a distinct set of economic rewards that would lead to full-scale participation in the global economy. Yet Iran has been the target of U.S. sanctions for 30 years and U.N. sanctions since 2006. None of these coercive measures has resulted in Tehran giving up its nuclear research. After all, Iran has become used to surviving outside the international system rendering sanctions useless.
Worse yet, sanctions could have the opposite effect. In nations where strong internal opposition exists, such as Iran, sanctions provide a country's beleaguered leadership with a classic "rally around the flag" policy tool that justifies further internal repression by blaming the extreme economic and political emergency on sanctions. So new sanctions could allow Tehran to blame outsiders for domestic dissent and serve as a rationale for further repression. They certainly would make it easier for Iran to suspend international nuclear inspections, withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, defy the United Nations, and increase attacks on its own citizens.
If not sanctions, what else should be done? First, Washington should recognize that time--at least the next six months--is on its side. Beyond the political bluster about building new nuclear plants, Iran's ability to enrich uranium to weapon-grade levels still faces many technical obstacles that can't be remedied by the summer. And despite its increased brutality against its citizens, Tehran can't halt the social movement unfolding within its borders. That struggle may yet become bloodier, but it will play out on its own terms. In light of these ongoing internal developments, doing nothing of a coercive nature is a smart and effective course of action.
Second, although the Obama administration has declared a new policy of engagement, it has shown neither the patience nor the creativity that such a policy requires. Rather, by talking engagement while brandishing sanctions, the United States has lost the advantage that aggressive diplomacy and continued engagement might provide. The administration needs to continue articulating its policy of debate on the nuclear issue until Iran's leaders tire of our persistence and negotiate in good faith. Further, Washington should leverage the continued unified condemnation of Iran by the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council to generate alternatives, impose more timelines, and if need be, establish a schedule for the slow and steady increase of pressure that could begin in six months (including further sanctions).
Since the Iranians dismissed the West's offer, too many in Washington have proposed sanctions as the only remaining alternative. I disagree. The administration must treat the rejected agreement as a deal-in-waiting and consider Iran's recent bombast as just another step in the process. The U.S. response shouldn't be further sanctions, but instead new proposals that invite, embarrass, cajole, and/or incentivize Tehran to embrace some version of the previously offered deal. In other words, we need determined and nimble diplomacy to influence Iran. Determined diplomacy is more difficult and complex than sanctions, but it has a better chance of succeeding. The United States can always impose sanctions later. But it shouldn't impose them before all else fails.