The Bankruptcy of Coercive Policies

If the last few years have shown us anything, it is the total bankruptcy of making maximalist demands while using economic coercion.

NBC News reports on the bankrupt “Plan B” options being considered by the Biden administration if nuclear talks in Vienna aren’t successful:

As Iran and world powers prepare to resume negotiations next week on reviving a nuclear deal, the U.S. and its allies are already debating a list of "Plan B" options if the negotiations collapse, Western diplomats, former U.S. officials and experts say.

With chances for a breakthrough at the talks in Vienna looking remote and Iran at odds with U.N. nuclear inspectors, U.S. and European officials face a grim set of choices — from ramped-up sanctions to potential military action — as Iran’s nuclear program advances into dangerous territory.

These options are grim because they are also futile and destructive. We need to understand that piling on more sanctions or attacking Iran’s facilities will accomplish nothing except to kill more Iranians and convince their government that it needs a deterrent. The “Plan B” options being discussed are not serious options, because they stand no chance of preventing proliferation in Iran. Even if military action weren’t illegal aggression, it would still be folly. At best, these options would accelerate current trends in the expansion of Iran’s nuclear program, and at worst they would lead to regional war and proliferation. The only things that have won concessions from Iran are sanctions relief and compromise. Trying to increase pressure beyond “maximum pressure” means going in the wrong direction from where we need to go. This is a phenomenally stupid backup “plan,” and anyone advocating for any of these “grim choices” should be ignored.

The outlines of a mutually acceptable solution have been clear for years. The U.S. could still salvage the agreement if it is prepared to take the first steps in fixing what our government broke. If the Biden administration lacks the political will to take those steps, the entire exercise has been a waste of time. Nothing can work if the U.S. and the other governments that insisted Iran agree to these restrictions refuse to do their part in reviving an agreement that has been imposed on Iran. Iran has been the only party to the agreement that has gone out of their way to keep it alive, and once again they are expected to jump through all the hoops first before they see any benefits. Iran can’t be more committed to restricting its nuclear program than the U.S. and the other major powers are. If they aren’t given real incentives to continue cooperation soon, they will understandably no longer play along in a game that is so heavily rigged against them.

If the last few years have shown us anything, it is the total bankruptcy of making maximalist demands while using economic coercion. Sanctions can cause considerable damage, but they cannot make a targeted state change its understanding of its own interests and rights. The U.S. and the other major powers would have more success in dealing with Iran if they made an effort to respect those interests and rights. If they were prepared to show flexibility in providing sanctions relief, they would likely find Iran to be similarly ready to accommodate their concerns. As things stand now, Iran has responded to our government’s intransigence with its own. Pressure and threats are what brought us to this sorry pass, and more of the same will just make things worse. The only way forward that has a chance of producing a better, peaceful outcome is to press on with negotiations until they salvage the agreement.