U.S. attempts to squelch any and all Iranian uranium enrichment capabilities on its own soil via a Western-supported “Hail Mary pass” of cutting off all Iranian oil sales to global markets is both tactically and strategically mistaken – and thus ultimately unlikely to achieve the long-term goal of a non-nuclear-weapons Iran.
Stopping an Iranian bomb is certainly a laudable strategic security goal, given that a declared Iranian weapons arsenal could lead to further proliferation by the Saudis (perhaps via reliance on Pakistani expertise and capabilities) or future Israeli military strikes. Still, hardly any geopolitical issue of import to both U.S. and global security can be summed up by one issue in today’s highly interdependent world. It’s therefore a mistake to reduce all U.S. and global interests in the Persian Gulf to just one issue: nuclear non- or counter-proliferation. Moreover, given the lackluster history of success seen in historical efforts of great powers to compel a weaker party to give in to demands through coercion, it’s not even clear that the oil sanctions constitute the best policy in a world where nuclear weapons proliferation is presumed to be the key determinant of U.S. security policies.
Among current leaders of the Islamic Republic, this latest dramatic escalation in coercion will be seen as a direct assault on Iranian independence and sovereignty (values near and dear to the Iranian leadership’s heart), possibly causing, rather than averting, a short-term “weaponization decision” in regards to the indigenous enrichment capabilities. (By “weaponization decision” I mean the Iranian leadership deciding once and for all to enrich to 90 percent or higher for one or more weapons).Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
It’s important to recognize that most commentators and analysts believe firmly that a weaponization decision hasn’t yet been made. This latter assessment includes senior intelligence officials (as expressed in recent U.S. Senate hearings), various regional and Iran experts, and even prominent behavioral political scientists such as Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, who notably has contracted his decision-modeling services to the CIA and State Department with great success in predicting group decisions among entities as diverse as OPEC, Cambodian elites, and the Indian parliament. Indeed, the combined argument of most security and Iran experts is that Iran is likely to forgo weaponization, all else being equal, and instead retain a “plateau” moderate enrichment capacity of roughly 3.5 percent to 20 percent, with latent “treaty break-out” possibilities over the next several years.
Note, however, the phrase “all else being equal.” Western oil sanctions are now intervening in the decision-making equation, and probably not for the better. In this regard, a diverse, rigorous array of political science and psychological case studies, as well as quantitative analyses, have shown over the past five decades that pure great power attempts at “compulsion” or “compellance” via coercive diplomacy fails to induce the desired behavior in the majority of cases. This is due to the interplay of national interests and political ideologies with individual psychological dynamics based on belief systems and emotional stimuli. What both historical case studies and large-scale quantitative tests have shown – going back literally hundreds of years in the nation states system – is that any “bargaining context” lacking in positive signals such as security assurances is likely to drive an opponent into exactly the behavior the sanctioning party wants them not to do.
In regards to the current Iranian crisis, this means that without adding a true bargaining context to the sanctions with different, linked but separate, policy alternatives – such as, for instance, looking for a deal wherein Iranian spent fuel would be stored on a trusted and neutral third-party’s soil – the United States and its Western/NATO allies are dramatically increasing the chances of short-term weaponization because Iranian elites are likely to see Western crisis escalation and coercive diplomacy as a direct attack on its sovereign existence. Thus, all-encompassing, punitive oil sanctions with the express goal of “rolling back” any and all Iranian capabilities for domestic enrichment only serve to dramatically increase the perceived benefits of Iran acting on its latent nuclear capacities by actually taking a weaponization decision as soon as is technically feasible. These sanctions may very well create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Another problem with the current approach is that the proposed sanctions directly threaten any future, long-term strategic relationship with Iran under a post-Islamic regime supported by the Iranian people.