Here’s a question: What reason—what rigorous, analytical reason—do we have to believe that Iran’s leaders will respond to these intense new sanctions by backing down and conceding rather than by escalating?
Because if the answer is, “Well, it’s just logical for them to concede,” then we do not have an actual strategy toward Iran. We have, instead, what might be described as the gradual amassing of momentum, built on a foundation of hope.
For the moment, we appear to be patting ourselves vigorously on the back for the impact of the latest rounds of economic pain imposed upon Tehran. Our actions have shopkeepers expecting war at any moment, citizens hoarding dry goods, and—for all we know—children huddling under desks and attractive young Iranian couples doing whatever it is young people do before Armageddon. This is all to be applauded, under the rules of standard-issue coercive diplomacy theory.
And there is more to come, with agreements in place for the European Union to ban imports of Iranian oil (which they may implement over several months to ease the economic effect) and for the United States to bulldoze the global transactionbs of the Central Bank of Iran. All of this builds on years of cumulative sanctions, whose impact on Iran’s economy and society have been substantial.
But no one who understood this case has doubted the efficacy of sanctions ton hurt Iran. What is at issue is a more specific worry: Will their accumulating effect be sufficient to change the behavior of the leaders of the current regime, in particular toward nuclear weapons?
That is much harder to determine, but it is not impossible. Leaders have beliefs, track records, perspectives, ideologies, worldviews. In some cases, we might have nifty intelligence gadgets that catch them whispering to someone in the bathroom (“My wife is all on my back about the prices of the new iPhones, brother! We can’t keep this up much longer”). Lots of people in our intelligence community are paid a full-time salary to understand the psychologies of top officials in places like Iran.
I have no idea if our senior national security officials have seen meticulous assessments in recent months that say something like: “We judge with moderate confidence that the current leadership prioritizes the preservation of personal power and regime continuity. Therefore, if confronted with a regime-threatening accumulation of sanctions and sufficient international consensus to enforce them, it will make substantial medium-term nuclear concessions.”
Because, frankly, most of the best Iran people I talk to outside of government appear to have something close to the opposite impression—that (1) the leadership in Tehran is composed largely of guys who if cornered, for personal, regime ideological, and cultural-historical reasons, will lash out rather than knuckle under; and (2) this is not “a” regime but several overlapping power centers, some of which are militant and may welcome a shooting war with America to rally their people.
There may be a third way of looking at a policy of society-strangling sanctions, beyond “will they or won’t they give up the nukes.” A strong line of analysis all along has been, The problem isn’t the nukes, it’s the regime. What if, then, the current sanctions did not change any behavior, but did succeed in so destabilizing the current regime—both because of the social cost as well as the legitimacy price—that it hastened the rekindling of the embryonic February 2011 “Day of Rage” protests? What if the global alienation represented by these steps was the final straw that led to widespread popular uprisings on the part of a population that knew it deserved better?
I have absolutely zero reason to believe that these policies reflect a formal shift to some sort of unspoken regime change approach, but it’s not impossible that effect could be to tip American policy in that direction. Yet is that what we want? Have we assessed the risks and costs?
Even if so, between the current acceleration of sanctions effects and actual change lies the reaction of the current leaders, which will hold the key to everything. Decision makers can never be sure of such things. But they can gather detailed evidence, and make a highly educated, rigorously-tested judgment, as opposed to building a piecemeal bridge of incrementalism based on hope, constantly scanning the horizon, looking for the far shore.
And that is a worthwhile question to ask: Not just what reaction we hope for, but what work we have done to discover what reaction is most likely, and why; and what effort has been made to prepare for the moment when the mirage that had looked like a distant but reachable shore suddenly recedes, and we discover we’ve been building a structure into the middle, not of a river, but an ocean.