Never waste a good crisis
Coercive diplomacy is a legitimate part of national security decision-making, and even Trump critics must acknowledge that the policy of “maximal pressure” has placed Iran under extreme duress. The objective is not to cause Iran pain, but to force a change in its policy, and, admittedly, this has yet to happen. If managed correctly, however—still a big if— Trump’s approach may have opened new possibilities to address the shortcomings of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), often known popularly as the Iran nuclear deal.
Unsurprisingly, Iran has lashed out in an attempt to escape its growing strategic restraints. To date, however, its response has been calculated and circumscribed, far closer to “minimal resistance” than to the “maximal” described by some analysts. Moreover, Iran has more than indicated an interest in a diplomatic resolution, stressing that its recent violations of the JCPOA are reversible and expressing willingness to accelerate its accession to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Additional Protocol. Clearly, these opening gambits are not Iran’s last.
Crises have a rhythm and timing of their own and should not be driven by untoward haste, partisan considerations, or overblown and self-deterring fears of escalation. A good crisis, as the saying goes, should never be wasted.
Whether a supporter of the JCPOA, as I was and remain, or not, the fact is that Iran’s economy is in a tailspin and will deteriorate further, as the full effect of the sanctions waivers, just withdrawn in May, kick in. Indeed, the regime’s behavior reflects its recognition of the growing unrest and public pressure to resolve the issue and indicates that the sanctions may be reaching the point at which they are perceived to constitute a threat to regime stability. In a revolutionary-theocratic state such as Iran, the very perception of a threat to the regime is what counts, and that perception may lead, within a reasonable time frame, to further concessions.
Much to its frustration, Iran finds itself boxed in. The other signatories—the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China—insist that Iran continue to adhere to the JCPOA, despite the US withdrawal, and any Iranian failure to do so will only drive them closer to the American position. Moreover, the European signatories’ attempts to establish a mechanism designed to provide Iran with economic relief have failed ignominiously.
Even worse for Tehran, Trump has responded to its provocations with maddening restraint, blithely downplaying attacks on tankers and the downing of an American drone. Although Trump’s restraint may actually have reflected a lack of resolve, it was the wise move. Time is on the side of the United States. It can afford to swallow hard, take measures to protect shipping, refrain from escalation except in extraordinary circumstances, and wait patiently as the sanctions take their toll. Iran, conversely, does not have time and has apparently concluded that its “resistance economy,” designed to outlast Trump, is not sustainable. Moreover, Tehran can no longer dismiss its nightmare scenario, of Trump being re-elected and actually pursuing regime change in a second term.
Successful crisis management requires a deft hand, clear objectives, and sensitivity to the ebb and flow of negotiations. In this regard there is less room to be sanguine. Although Trump has manifested a clear reluctance to use military force, his command of the issue is questionable. With Boris Johnson ensconced in 10 Downing, a further wild card has been added to the deck.
Iran remains a radical state and has not abandoned its long-term objective of achieving at least a threshold nuclear capability. Over the decades, however, Iran has manifested a carefully calculating approach towards the pursuit of its radical objectives. Iran desperately does not want a major military confrontation with the United States, because the outcome of any such conflict is abundantly clear.
There is a vast difference between limited military action and “war,” but many Western analysts use the latter term, simplistically conflating the two while warning of the dangers of unbridled escalation. In any event, no one in Washington is contemplating a “war,” and Iran certainly has every incentive to avoid one.
Few military operations are cost-free, of course, and Iran may strike some American affiliated target, if only for appearances. However, any non-alarmist assessment can only lead to the conclusion that Iran is highly unlikely to engage in a war with the United States, or to retaliate against American allies in a manner that requires major American involvement.
The above should not be misconstrued as support for military action, but a call to maintain perspective and refrain from self-deterrence. The objective is a better deal, and a combination of coercive diplomacy, applied patiently over time, along with a willingness to compromise may make this possible.
A “better deal” can only be achieved, however, if it is better for both sides. Iranian leaders, too, not just Americans, face bitter domestic politics and cannot realistically be expected to negotiate a new deal if faced with total capitulation. The challenge is to craft a deal that addresses the primary flaws of the JCPOA—its expiration in just another few years and its failure to address Iran’s ballistic missile program—while also allaying some major Iranian concerns. These presumably include a desire for regime guarantees and assurances that this time, Iran will indeed enjoy the promised economic benefits.
Iran remains a grave danger and must be contained effectively. Calls for a simple return to the JCPOA are dangerously unsound strategically and actually undermine the prospects for a better deal. For too many, Iran has become a matter of identity politics and partisan divide. The only question is how to best prevent Iran from going nuclear in the circumstances prevailing today.
Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs