Iran and the Problem of Tactical Myopia

Jim Walsh, Thomas Pickering, and William Luers

It seems that every conversation about Iran is a conversation about sanctions. Even in the midst of negotiations, the talk is as likely to be about the sanctions that might follow as it is about the negotiation itself. This is an odd and unfortunate state of affairs.

Although sanctions can be an effective policy instrument, they are only that: an instrument or tactic for achieving a goal. Given their track record, new sanctions are hardly the tactic one would rush to as a promising choice. More importantly, by narrowly focusing on a tactic rather than the strategic objective, there is the risk that policymakers will produce the very thing they seek to prevent: an Iran with nuclear weapons.

The use of sanctions, whether in general or against Iran, is not new. By one count, economic sanctions have been used 174 times since World War I. Iran has been subject to a variety of sanctions since its 1979 revolution. Scholarship on the effect of sanctions presents a challenge because of the difficulty of coding “successes” and “failures” and because of the numerous variables involved (size of country, duration and scope of sanctions, etc.) Still, it is clear from the research that, in general, sanctions are more likely to fail than succeed.[1]

For many reasons, the Iranian nuclear case presents a particularly tough challenge for sanctions. Iran is a regional power and an oil supplier—not an ideal target. With a declining global supply of oil, countries such as China will not agree to do the one thing that would most affect Iran’s economy: refuse to buy its oil. More importantly, Iran’s government has made a very public commitment to the nuclear program, and the track record of the past several years indicates that it can build centrifuges faster than others can impose sanctions. Iran is a proud country with a cultivated abhorrence of outside interference, especially when the interference is perceived as having imperial overtones. New U.S. and other sanctions can impose costs on Iran, but the loud and accusing character of the sanctions makes them as likely to induce resistance as compliance.

The real danger is that a myopic focus on new sanctions will backfire. Sanctions can be a complement to negotiation when they give a country an incentive to bargain. Unfortunately, they can also be a roadblock to negotiations. It would be tragic indeed if, in the rush to pile on more sanctions, an opportunity to achieve the strategic objective, an Iran without nuclear weapons, was lost.

If the policy focus is not tactics but the endgame, then the first question should be, “What is the most likely path under which Iran remains without nuclear weapons?” The historical record suggests that the most probable scenario is one in which Iran agrees to a negotiated settlement, one in which it receives at least partial satisfaction on its concerns (e.g., recognition and respect as a regional power, an end to foreign activities aimed at fomenting domestic unrest, greater access to foreign investment in its oil and gas sectors) in return for enhanced transparency and new arrangements for some fuel cycle activities. Indeed, an agreement is most likely to be effective if Iran feels that it has a stake in its success. By contrast, Iran’s leaders are unlikely to agree to one-sided concessions or abject capitulation.

Today, few commentators are willing to object to negotiations for fear of seeming unreasonable. Instead, the doubters emphasize the dangers of negotiation, urge the “P5+1” (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—plus Germany) to set strict deadlines, and argue that the United States and its partners should be prepared to walk away at the first sign of difficulty.

The most common complaint about negotiations is that they will allow Tehran to “play for time.” Typically, a country uses negotiations to play for time when it takes advantage of the period of negotiation to engage in activities that it would otherwise be unable to do (e.g., stockpiling armaments or securing territory prior to a ceasefire). These conditions do not apply in the Iranian case. The central concern with Iran is uranium enrichment.[2] Iran was enriching prior to the negotiations and would be doing so absent any negotiations. Negotiations do not make it easier for Iran to enrich. Indeed, it may be that negotiations, as a process, induce Iran to be more transparent and cooperative than it would be if it were outside the process throwing stones. Negotiations may ultimately prove unsuccessful in addressing the problems raised by Iran’s fuel cycle program, but they do not exacerbate those problems.

As with sanctions, there are situations in which deadlines can be useful. Governments, by their nature, are loath to move forward without the helpful discipline of a deadline. As noted above, deadlines are a tactic to be used in service of an overarching strategic objective; they are not a natural good unto themselves. It would be a mistake, for example, to become attached to an artificial deadline if that meant missing an opportunity to resolve the nuclear dispute.

Any negotiation with Iran is going to be difficult. The current negotiations may be even more challenging given internal divisions in Iran following the June 12 election. In the shifting and ironic politics of postelection Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may be the strongest advocate for a nuclear deal and international rapprochement, while reformers and anti-Ahmadinejad hard-liners criticize him for being soft. Under these circumstances, Iranian slowness to respond to proposals may be a reflection of fractured politics as much as of some master plan.

Negotiations with Iran will not be easy, but it would be a mistake to assume in advance, as most of the U.S. press and punditry appeared to do in the days leading up to the October 1 opening of negotiations in Geneva, that negotiations will fail. Moreover, one senses in the strongest advocates of sanctions and deadlines an almost religious faith that negotiations will fail and that, ultimately, Iran will acquire nuclear weapons.

This “inevitability assumption” has been a common belief in the nuclear age, and yet, it has repeatedly turned out to be wrong. The examples include Egypt, Germany, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. The assumption is tantamount to relying on a worst-case scenario, which in turn has the effect of truncating the list of potential policy options. Worse yet, an assumption that Iran is going nuclear can lead decision-makers to miss the signals and signs when a negotiated settlement is actually possible.

Of course, it may be that Iran becomes a nuclear-weapon state, leaving policymakers with an unenviable set of options. Containment, once seen as heretical because it “accepted” an Iranian nuclear weapon, is a far more popular option today, particularly among those who doubt the value of negotiations. Two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, containment sounds like a safe and predictable option, but that is only because of a tendency to forget that the Cold War was dangerous and difficult and its protagonists did not live in the Middle East. Containment is better than the use of military force against Iran, but an effective deal that keeps Iran from becoming a nuclear-weapon state would be preferable to containment or military strikes.

Neither Iran nor the United States can afford to throw away any serious chance at a negotiated settlement. This was true before Iran’s June 12 elections, when the future of Iranian-U.S. relations had direct implications for U.S. interests in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as for nuclear nonproliferation. It is arguably even more true after the Iranian election. Ongoing turmoil in Iran’s domestic politics may give Tehran new incentives to settle disputes with the outside world so that it can focus on internal concerns. Paradoxically, these same events may also have increased Iran’s incentive to pursue an overt nuclear weapons status rather than a latent capability or a hedge posture.

In short, both the opportunities and the stakes with Iran may have increased. Given the challenges that can be expected in any negotiations, the P5+1 needs to be clear about the strategic objective: permit Iran to operate under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty but create the inspection, monitoring, and transparency arrangements to assure the best firewall against weapons development. The six countries also need to be open about how to get there, through a negotiation that accepts Iran’s legitimate activities, including enrichment under appropriate safeguards, and does the maximum to block the illegitimate ones. They should avoid all-or-nothing gambles, artificial deadlines, and a preoccupation with tactics. If they do, it may be possible to avoid new sanctions, proliferation, containment, or even war.

Jim Walsh is a research associate in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Security Studies Program. Thomas Pickering is co-chair of the United Nations Association-USA, former undersecretary of state for political affairs, and former U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, India, Israel, Jordan, Nigeria, Russia, and the United Nations. William Luers is past president of the United Nations Association-USA and was formerly U.S. ambassador to Czechoslovakia and Venezuela.


1. On the 174 cases, see Gary Clyde Hufbauer et al., Economic Sanctions Reconsidered, 3rd ed. (Washington, DC: Peterson Institute, 2007). On sanctions against Iran in particular, see U.S. Government Accountability Office, “Iran Sanctions: Impact in Furthering U.S. Objectives Is Unclear and Should Be Reviewed,” GAO-08-58, December 2007,; Hossein G. Askari et al., Case Studies of U.S. Economic Sanctions: The Chinese, Cuban, and Iranian Experience (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003), pp. 171-220.

2. One could argue that Iran is playing for time by avoiding further sanctions, but for reasons discussed earlier, there is cause for doubting the centrality of sanctions as a factor in Iranian behavior. In any case, the timing of sanctions is not an issue. Whether sanctions are imposed now or six months from now will hardly matter, given the time horizon in which sanctions operate (years or even decades). As noted in this article, it has to be emphasized that the strategic objective relates to nuclear status and thus enrichment, not sanctions for the sake of sanctions.