Features | Security | Central Asia

Folly of the Iran “Hail Mary” Pass

The Iranian regime won’t last forever. Squeezing Iran tighter through sanctions and the threat of an attack will sour Western ties with its successor and may encourage Tehran to go nuclear.

By Michael Ryan Kraig for

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).

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.

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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.

Ardent Persian nationalism is shared by all segments of the Iranian populace (even the “reformists” or “left”), based in no small part on widespread societal sentiment that Iran has been the frequent, repeated victim of interventions by external powers such as Russia, Britain, and the United States. Such interventions have taken the form of 19th and 20th century British imperial strengthening of neighboring Arab tribes at the expense of what Iran perceives as its centuries-long claims to territory – especially the islands of Abu Musa and the Tunbs in the Gulf. There have also been CIA interventions, most notably the 1953 coup that deposed the popular, democratically elected Prime Minister Mossadegh, itself based on earlier British refusals to give up its stranglehold on Iranian crude, in which popular Iranian sentiment was clearly for nationalization of its own natural assets. And, of course, we can’t forget the case of Russia, which throughout the centuries has knocked on Persia’s door and in the 20th century carried out actual territorial occupation of the entire northeast of Iran, including during World War II.

Why is this societal nationalism important? Because one can and should go further than the ideologized Islamic Republic’s regime and leadership when talking about likely long-term Iranian positions on its nuclear program. The Shah of Iran started the program long before 1979 and was thought by most analysts to be building a latent capability. Even without the intemperate and mercurial Shah in power, given “Persian pride” and widespread societal feelings of chronic weakness at the hands of external powers going back hundreds of years, it’s very unlikely that “regime change” will mean “no enrichment capability on Iranian soil.” Regime change isn’t likely to be a silver bullet solution. Arab-Persian, Israeli-Muslim, and other geopolitical tensions at the local level will continue regardless.

U.S. policy should therefore craft its current strategy with the long-term Iranian political landscape in mind. The current all-or-nothing oil sanctions promise only an ephemeral, short-term boost to U.S. strategic interests and global security in the Persian Gulf.

Another point is that even if these sanctions are effective and enforceable (a rather big “if” given the realities of complex global interdependence), they could make Iran implode. If the regime falls under these harsh circumstances, the Iranian populace will be financially bankrupt and insecure, which could lead to domestic alternatives that are themselves extreme and unstable.  Moreover, the regime would fall with maximum hostility toward any domestic actors seen as “consorting with the enemy.” Regime deterioration resulting from Western pressure via oil sanctions would almost certainly be bloody because its supporters would see its demise as being the direct result of external hostile intervention.

That’s why the West should choose instead a contain, engage, and deter strategy, similar to that used toward the Soviets in the Cold War, that lets the regime experience its own domestic evolutions over time. Domestic changes are likely in the medium-term of 5 to 10 years given how the regime’s ideological script is now falling on increasingly deaf and hostile domestic ears. As the détente of Willy Brandt’s West Germany with East Germany showed, starting in the 1960s and continuing to the end of the Cold War, there’s much wisdom in a combined engagement, containment, and deterrence relationship, whereby any domestic change within the national polity of the adversary is incremental, indigenous and peaceful.

In today’s terms, this would possibly mean using what diplomats call “the good offices” of potential mediators among G-20 rising powers such as Turkey, India, or even once-nuclear Brazil and South Africa.  Unfortunately, in terms of its effect on the Iranian populace, the new Western oil-sale sanctions approach is the direct opposite of offering a soft landing.

Additionally, there are global concerns such as energy security, and in this regard, current U.S. posture does nothing to improve the country’s or the world’s overall stability and prosperity. As any energy analyst will say, the international oil landscape is ultimately a “spot” oil market, not a “mercantilist” market harkening back to the colonial great power eras prior to 1945. The global economy is far different from what it was before World War II, with value-added supply and production networks strewn across great and middle and minor powers alike. Moreover, fueling all of it is oil, the price of which is still determined on a global supply-and-demand basis despite efforts of single countries to make special bilateral deals.  This explains Asian allies’ distaste for U.S. and European actions: Asia is the main manufacturing region for the entire world, with escalating needs for crude, while the traditional West has moved towards banking, advertising, and other “downstream” services that require low amounts of oil consumption relative to production of value-added content.

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Compounding this is the divide between South, Southeast, and Northeast Asia, on the one hand, and the traditional West, on the other. Popular Western elite ideas of a “rules based order” are far more physically real – bureaucratically, legally, and in value-based terms – in the European Union than in Asia. Non-Western rising powers are far less obsessed with nonproliferation and rogue-sate nuclear capabilities as the defining issue that drives all foreign policy and national security actions. Increasingly, middle and rising powers (both allies and non-allies alike) are driven by regional geopolitics.  Their “globalism” among decision-making elites and wider societies is only at the economic level; otherwise, their security concerns are decidedly regional in nature. Simply put, rising powers in all non-Western regions of the world are relying on the profits from the global economy to fuel their local expansive goals.

Ultimately, a lack of strong support for these measures from Northeast Asian allies and from friends in Southeast Asia could potentially hurt U.S. legitimacy and thus future military-political efforts to contain and deter China in the Asian regional context.

No Way Back?

There is still time over the next few months for the United States to partially “uncouple” its long-range Iran strategy from existential, short-term Israeli views and concerns. The United States and Israel, though allies, have diverging as well as congruent interests – and perhaps more importantly for the present crisis, may have different strategic policy solutions for achieving the same overall goal of a non-nuclear-weapons Iran.

Specifically, the United States can still decide to announce that it will accept some limited level of enrichment on Iranian soil, provided that a new diplomatic process is started immediately based on the mediation of powers such as India or Turkey. Rising powers such as these have common as well as conflicting positions with all parties concerned and are “fellow travelers” with Iran in the G-77 Global South grouping of states, making them potentially valuable mediators with much higher levels of legitimacy in Iranian eyes than the Great Powers who are already represented in the years-long P-5+1 process.

This course of action wouldn’t be a sop to Iranian maximal demands. The point to Iran would be: continuing pain will be felt under already-existing sanctions and Iran will continue to be relatively isolated unless and until it realizes that it must negotiate a new nuclear regime for storing spent fuel on third parties’ soil with strict international observation internally on Iranian soil as well.

Of course, this strategic turn in U.S. policy would distance the United States from Israel in the short-term, since Israel would no doubt continue to insist on an implicit or explicit “zero enrichment” position.  However, this in itself could have the salutary effect of pressuring Israel to accept this middle-ground option, as well, prior to an eventual Israeli bombing raid.

Put another way: it’s not necessarily in Israel’s long-term strategic position in the Middle East for it to be seen as the “enforcer” of the NPT via military means, especially given the increasing restiveness of Arab publics. If the United States were to push a “long view” approach to Iran along the lines of “contain, deter, engage strategy” as outlined above, this would ultimately give Israel a more solid footing in the region and a wiser long-term course than an all-or-nothing military blitz to end the latent Iranian nuclear threat.

At the end of the day, the United States is in danger of putting the issue of counter-proliferation ahead of other, equally pressing, concerns such as energy security, deterrence of China in East and Southeast Asia and relations with rising powers such as Turkey, Brazil, and India.  Indeed, even on the issue of countering an Iranian bomb, other grand strategic options are possible, less costly, and have greater potential likelihood of success.

Already, without full enforcement, these sanctions are hurting the Iranian people themselves, particularly the pro-Western middle class, who are seeing their life savings disappear as the Rial plunges and the regime’s isolation increases. If and when the Iranian state undergoes dramatic domestic change and evolution, as history suggests it eventually will, the United States may find little favor with the mass of Iranian people who have been left destitute.

Michael Ryan Kraig is an assistant professor of national security studies at the Air Command and Staff College. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Air University or U.S. Air Force.