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Romney’s strategy, and utter failure to offer a compelling Republican vision for America’s place on the world stage, reflected a disconcerting lack of seriousness on the topic. Indeed, just this month, some of Romney’s own advisors wondered aloud whether Romney was even reading the foreign policy briefs being prepared for him. And it led President Obama to remark in the debate, “You know, there have been times, Governor, frankly, during the course of this campaign, where it sounded like you thought you’d do the same things we did, but you’d say them louder and somehow that – that would make a difference.” For a man who charged, in the previous presidential debate, that Obama’s foreign policy was “unraveling before our very eyes,” Romney’s responses were remarkable.
One of the more striking instances in which Romney opted simply to agree with the President, rather than challenge current American policy, came after the candidates were asked about “red lines, Israel and Iran.” After pledging fidelity to Israel, both candidates lauded the economic sanctions currently crippling the Iranian economy. Obama noted that his administration has “organized the strongest coalition and the strongest sanctions against Iran in history, and it is crippling their economy. Their currency has dropped 80 percent. Their oil production has plunged to the lowest level since they were fighting a war with Iraq 20 years ago. So their economy is in shambles.” Similarly, Romney noted that “crippling sanctions are something I called for five years ago” and pledged to “tighten those sanctions further” if elected.
Mitt Romney correctly noted that Iran’s “nuclear folly . . . is unacceptable to America.” But both candidates failed to meaningfully address the toughest question surrounding the Iranian nuclear dilemma: whether the current sanction regime is working. As a negotiating tool, economic sanctions are a competitive tactic that are designed to coerce the Iranian government into conceding the middle ground and accepting the international communities reservation point. But while they have been effective at inflicting economic consequences on the Iranian economy, there is reason to doubt their effectiveness as a negotiating tactic with the Iranian ruling elite. In the Iranian nuclear crisis, the stakes could not be any higher, and it may be time that the world reassess its bargaining position so that a peaceful solution may be achieved.
The Evolution of the Iranian Negotiations and the Role of Economic Sanctions
Although it “probably is impossible to impose a rigid structural model on negotiation,” many commentators have noted that the negotiation process typically progresses through a series of developmental stages. According to Donald Gifford, for example, negotiations progress in the following manner. First, the negotiation process begins with an orientation and positioning phase, during which the parties set the tone for the negotiation. Second, the parties explore the issues by presenting arguments, selectively disclosing information, and engaging in an information-gathering process. Third, bargaining occurs, during which the parties attempt to resolve their differences by offering realistic proposals, making concessions, and suggesting problem-solving alternatives. Fourth, the parties either reach an agreement and elucidate any unresolved details, or they terminate the negotiation. Although no two negotiations are identical, each negotiation generally follows a pattern of proceeding from competitive phases to more cooperative or problem-solving stages.
The orientation and positioning phase began in February 2003, when an Iranian dissident group (the People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran) revealed that the Iranian government had been secretly importing, processing and enriching uranium. Following the disclosure, the Iranian government stalled, obfuscated, and lied about its nuclear program. But in May 2003, shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, elements of the Iranian government made a confidential proposal to the Bush Administration, offering to suspend the Iranian nuclear program in return for various security assurances from the United States. First impressions, however, are as important in negotiations as they are elsewhere. And given the history of U.S.-Iranian relations, particularly after the storming of the U.S. Embassy and taking of 100 hostages (including 63 Americans) on November 4, 1979, the Bush Administration was doubtful of the sincerity of the Iranian proposal.
The second stage of the negotiation process (exploration and information-gathering) began in October 2003. On October 16, 2003, Iran announced its decision to provide full information on its nuclear activities. And on October 21, 2003, the Iranian government, along with France, Germany and the United Kingdom (the “E3/EU”), issued a detailed letter with substantial disclosures, a number of which implicitly acknowledged prior misstatements. The disclosures ultimately led to preliminary talks, and even though the IAEA continued to criticize Iran for “failing in a number of instances [and] over an extended period of time to meet its obligations under its Safeguards Agreement,” these talks eventually culminated in the Paris Agreement. In the Paris Agreement, essentially an agreement to negotiate, Iran agreed to suspend all enrichment and enrichment-related activity “while negotiations on a long-term agreement are under way.”
Following the Paris Agreement, Iran and the international community began the bargaining process in an attempt to resolve their differences. Early on, the parties identified their reservation points (i.e., bottom line). The Iranian government’s reservation point was clear: Iran sought to retain its ability to enrich uranium while providing the international community with assurances that its activities were for peaceful purposes. Consistent with this objective, Iran tabled a number of detailed proposals, reflecting the negotiations initial integrative potential, to resolve the nuclear dispute. One such proposal, for example, committed Iran to the following: (1) ratifying the Additional Protocol; (2) foregoing plutonium processing; (3) adopting a “Policy Declaration” limiting enrichment in Iran to an agreed amount corresponding to low-enriched uranium (LEU); (4) storing all LEU in the form of proliferation-resistant fuel rods; and (5) permitting a continuous, on-site presence of IAEA inspectors in all current, and future, Iranian nuclear facilities.
The E3/EU’s reservation point was equally clear: because of the sensitive nature of uranium enrichment, and the lack of confidence in the Iranian regime, the E3/EU wanted the Iranian government to completely cease all uranium enrichment, regardless of its purpose.
In February 2005, Iran pressed the E3/EU to speed up the pace of negotiations. But because of the divergent positions of the two parties, the talks continued to make little progress. Eventually, the E3/EU rebuffed Iran’s proposals, and in August 2005, the E3/EU made its counteroffer. The E3/EU’s counteroffer included a number of “carrots” – commitments by the E3/EU that were broad, vaguely worded, and non-committal – in exchange for Iran’s acceptance of a 10 year moratorium on all uranium enrichment. Reportedly, the package included political and trade benefits, as well as long-term commitments to supply Iran with nuclear materials and assurances of non-aggression by the European Union, but notably not from the United States.
Any progress that had been made prior to August 2005 quickly deteriorated. Mohammad Saeedi, deputy director of Iran’s atomic energy organization, characterized the E3/EU offer as “very insulting and humiliating.” And two days before Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office as President of Iran, the Iranian government responded, in a bitter demarche, that it had gone far beyond legal requirements in seeking to restore confidence of its peaceful intentions. Iran noted that it had requested that the IAEA develop “technical, legal and monitoring modalities for Iran’s enrichment program,” but that after over three months of negotiations following the Paris Agreement, it had become “evident the E3/EU simply wanted prolonged and fruitless negotiations, thereby prejudicing the exercise of Iran’s inalienable right to resume its legal enrichment activities.”
The result has been a downward spiral into stalemate. Shortly after negotiations collapsed, on October 3, 2006, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice suggested that the international community would have no choice but to impose sanctions on Iran if it continued to refuse to suspend all uranium enrichment activities. Iran rebuffed the threat, calling the sanctions “a bullying tactic by the West that is doomed to fail.” Since 2006, however, the most visible response to Iran’s defiance has been the imposition of economic sanctions to pressure the Iranian’s back to the negotiation table.
On July 23, 2006, the U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1737, sponsored by Britain, France, and Germany, imposing the first sanctions on Iran and blocking the import or export of sensitive nuclear material and equipment and freezing the assets of persons or entities supporting the proliferation of nuclear material or the development of nuclear-weapon delivery systems. And since the adoption of Resolution 1737, the Security Council has passed six more resolutions on Iran (individual states have also acted unilaterally), tightening the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities, mandating increased vigilance over Iranian banks, and requiring that U.N. member states thoroughly inspect all cargo headed for Iran.
The imposition of economic sanctions as a competitive tactic at this stage in the negotiation process serves two purposes. First, the sanctions are “designed to undermine the other negotiator’s confidence in his bargaining position and to induce him to enter into an agreement less advantageous to his client than he would have prior to the negotiation.” In the context of the Iranian nuclear negotiations, the economic sanctions are meant to coerce the Iranian government into accepting the P5+1’s proposal and abandon its uranium enrichment activities while a long-term solution can be negotiated.
Second, the sanctions communicate the relative bargaining power of the parties. A negotiator’s power is affected by how favorably she views her own alternatives to a negotiated settlement. Thus, if Iran perceives that a negotiation breakdown will produce severe detrimental consequences, Iran has little leverage to dictate the terms of the ultimate agreement. Conversely, if Iran perceives that they have other viable options if the negotiation fails, Iran’s relative leverage (or perceived leverage) is increased. The economic sanctions are meant to convey to the Iranian government how little leverage it actually has. The Iranian government’s response reflects the opposite belief.
Moreover, the timing and severity of the economic sanctions reflect the relative orientation tactics of both parties. Negotiations typically involve competitive orientation tactics and cooperative orientation tactics. Although parties to a negotiation must often compete to determine the eventual outcome, cooperation is also necessary. The goal of the cooperative negotiator is to achieve the reciprocation of cooperative negotiation behavior so that, together, the parties can reach a “fair and just agreement without a contentious negotiation process.” Although this approach can be successful when both parties seek cooperation, when only one party seeks cooperation and the other engages in competitive tactics, the competitive negotiator will interpret the cooperative parties concessions as a sign of weakness and will exploit the cooperate negotiator’s trust in order to achieve an agreement that is disproportionately favorable to his client.
In terms of the Iranian nuclear negotiations, the Iranian government initially adopted a cooperative orientation tactic. On the other hand, the E3/EU took a much more competitive orientation. In light of this, rather than being reflective of a good faith effort to reach a settlement, Iran’s concessions in 2003 (suspend uranium enrichment) and 2004 (continue uranium enrichment but under strict supervision) were interpreted by the E3/EU as a sign of weakness, driving its negotiators to demand nothing short of their reservation point, and pushing the crisis further into stalemate.
The Effectiveness of Economic Sanctions as a Negotiating Tactic
The increasingly difficult negotiations regarding Iran’s uranium enrichment activities are nearing its tenth anniversary. Negotiations promptly began following the disclosure of previously covert Iranian nuclear activities in February 2003, but quickly fell apart in 2006 after it became clear that the bargaining range was too vast and that no bridging proposal could close the gap. Since 2006, negotiations have started and stopped, but no meaningful progress has been made.
Growing in frustration with the perceived Iranian intransigence, the international community began imposing severe economic sanctions out of the belief that it was only a question of time until Tehran capitulated. The stakes of such a policy, however, could not be any higher. Israel has accused the Iranian government of stalling, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who considers a nuclear-armed Tehran to be an existential threat to the Jewish state, has indicated that he would order an attack on Iran if international diplomacy and economic sanctions fail.
The effectiveness of the economic sanctions depends on how such effectiveness is measured. On the one hand, while it is clear that the sanctions have had a crippling effect on the Iranian economy and have stoked internal dissent, it is less clear that they have been effective in persuading the Iranian government to capitulate and acquiesce to the international community’s demands. On the other hand, if the measure of the sanctions effectiveness are their effect on the Iranian government’s approach to the negotiation process, recent events suggest that they may be having their intended effect. In April 2012, Iran agreed to resume talks with the six major world powers after more than a year without any negotiations. More recently, there have been reports that Iran and the United States have agreed to direct talks, though this was quickly denied by both governments.
However, according to Richard Baldwin, Professor of International Economics at the Graduate Institute of Geneva, “[i]t would be difficult to find any proposition in the international relations more widely accepted than those belittling the utility of economic techniques in statecraft.” The current policy of pursuing economic sanctions as an effective negotiating tactic is subject to two misguided assumptions.
The first assumption is that the imposition of economic sanctions has been successful in the past and will be successful in the future. However, according to Robert Pape, sanctions have been successful less than five percent of the time, and a key reason sanctions fail is not related to cooperation of sanctioning states but to the nature of the target. In the 1990s, for example, Iraq was subjected to the most extreme sanctions in history (48 percent of its GNP was eliminated), but the regime did not buckle. Similarly, Iran has been the target of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions and the subject of a multitude of unilateral sanctions from the United States and Europe. It has been assumed that by pushing the Iranian theocracy to the brink of economic meltdown, the regime will capitulate and forfeit the nuclear program to secure its survival. But as Pape notes, “[n]ationalism often makes states and societies willing to endure considerable punishment rather than abandon their national interests.”
In 1988, Ayatollah Khomeini accepted, as he put it, to “drink the poison chalice” and end the eight-year war with Iraq, a war that he had previously declared to be “the gift of God.” And in 2003, following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Ayatollah Ali Khameini offered to suspend uranium enrichment in a letter faxed to Washington. But 2012 is neither 1988 nor 2003, and the Iranian government has made clear that it is willing to accept high costs, including civilian suffering, to exercise what it views as its “inalienable right to resume its legal enrichment activities.” For Khameini, humiliation is not an option: “pressures, sanctions and assassinations will bear no fruit. No obstacles can stop Iran’s nuclear work.”
The second assumption is that even if economic sanctions do not cause the Iranians to capitulate, they will weaken and isolate the regime and make it vulnerable to a domestic uprising or war. This too, however, fails to recognize that even in the weakest and most fractured states, external pressure is more likely to enhance nationalist legitimacy than to undermine it. As Pape remarked, “[s]trategic bombing badly damaged the economies of North Korea, North Vietnam, and Iraq without causing their populations to rise up against their regimes. The Germans and Japanese were firebombed. If modern nation-states can withstand that, they are unlikely to surrender to threats of partial or even total trade disruptions.” Moreover, it ignores the reality that the ruling elites often can protect themselves and their supporters by shifting the economic burden of sanctions onto opponents or disenfranchised groups.
Despite these misguided assumptions, economic sanctions do have their place in international negotiations. However, it has become increasingly clear that an over-reliance on economic sanctions may ultimately hinder, and not facilitate, negotiating a peaceful solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis. Negotiated settlements are achieved on the basis of cooperation and compromise. To be effective, negotiations must facilitate the narrowing of differences.
And while they have their place in the negotiation process, explicit threats and “[c]onclusory and one-sided arguments, even if presented with great emotional vehemence, are unlikely to convince anyone who does not already agree with the negotiator.” Such threats may in fact lead to more concessions from the other negotiator, but they also significantly increase the degree of hostility between the parties, thereby enhancing the probability of negotiation breakdown and impasse. The presence of economic sanctions throughout the past six years has had such an effect, but it is clear that the door has not yet unalterably closed. To facilitate the negotiation of a peaceful solution, the international community must communicate the benefits of cooperation, and consider the relaxation of economic sanctions to encourage such cooperation.
Conclusion: Moving Toward a Peaceful Solution
On 8 November 2011, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released its most detailed evidence to date of nuclear weaponization activities in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Released in the midst of a diplomatic standoff, the IAEA report contained an unprecedented detail of the evidence and made clear that the United Nation’s nuclear watchdog “continues to have serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program.” The report noted “Iran’s lack of cooperation” with the IAEA and confirmed that certain activities “highly relevant to a nuclear weapons program” resumed at some point after a 2003 “halt order” issued by senior Iranian officials.
The IAEA report highlighted the recent discovery of the Fordow uranium enrichment plant, which was built inside a mountain near the Islamic holy city of Qum. Discovery of the Fordow plant escalated distrust of the Iranian government because its construction had not been disclosed to the international community. Although the Iranian government has maintained that it always intended to reveal the plant’s existence, it was not until Western intelligence uncovered the plant and announced the discovery that the Iranians even acknowledged its existence in September 2009. Such secrecy raised concerns that the plant was built in order to provide Iran with the ability to quickly and securely make highly enriched uranium in the event of a breakout to make nuclear weapons.
Israel, like the West, alleges that Iran is attempting to develop a nuclear bomb. But the Iranian government emphatically denies this claim, calling nuclear arms production a “great sin” and maintaining that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only (e.g., energy production, medical isotopes).
Whether Iran is peacefully enriching uranium for medical isotopes, seeking the capability to build a nuclear weapon, actually build a nuclear weapon, or enhance its influence in the region by creating “strategic ambiguity” is a difficult question to answer. Divining the intentions of closed societies is one of the most difficult tasks for intelligence analysts, and the only clarity surrounding the Iranian nuclear dilemma is that nobody (except, perhaps, a select few within the Iranian government) knows the right answer. Consistent with this reality, the consensus view of America’s sixteen intelligence agencies is that “there is no hard evidence that Iran has decided to build a nuclear bomb.”
Regardless, the mere possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran has raised fears throughout the international community and increased the potential for military confrontation. To avoid such a confrontation, the “P5+1” – the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (United States, United Kingdom, France, China, Russia) and Germany – have been pressing Iran to return to the negotiating table. Seeking to compel the Iranian regime to abandon its nuclear program, the international community has used its leverage to impose a cascade of economic sanctions, crippling the Iranian economy (particularly its ability to export oil and conduct trade) and stoking internal dissent.
Economic sanctions are a “coercive form of international politics that attempt to achieve what diplomatic persuasion, pressure, or other incentives have failed to do.” After over six years since their imposition, however, there is reason to doubt their effectiveness in driving the Iranian ruling elite to the bargaining table. The stakes could not be any higher. To achieve a peaceful solution, it may be time for the world, including the United States, to reassess its bargaining position. But in the third presidential debate, both President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney displayed no interest in doing so. If the United States truly seeks to resolve the Iranian dilemma peacefully, this is extraordinarily disconcerting. With the pendulum of animosity swinging towards military confrontation, it is imperative that the U.S. pursues a viable political alternative. The Iranian hostility towards the U.S. may be irreconcilable, but it is not implacable.