Carrots Likely Better Than Sticks in Iran Dealings

The BombAlthough the recently released WikiLeaks secrets document the well-known animosity of Iran’s neighbors to the radical Islamist regime—with their hopes for a U.S. attack on the nation over its nuclear enrichment program—talks to end the Iranian effort will continue. In advance of the next installment of negotiations to be held in Istanbul in January 2011, Gary Samore, the White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction, threatened new Western sanctions on Iran, especially in the energy field.

Threatening more sanctions, however, will likely be an unproductive approach to getting Iran to end its nuclear program. When assessing human psychology, experts say that negative reinforcement is scarring. For example, instead of scolding or spanking children, parents should ignore bad behavior—unless it’s dangerous—while positively reinforcing good behavior. Since relations between countries usually come down to negotiations between their leaders, the same principles apply. Positive incentives are better than negative sanctions.

Some argument could be made for narrowly focused sanctions to prevent Iran from getting nuclear bomb-making material and technology—that is, to prevent aforementioned “dangerous” behavior. But international and bilateral sanctions have long gone way beyond that, already affecting the energy sector, officials of the Revolutionary Guards who now have great influence over the Iranian regime, etc.

History shows that such negative sanctions can occasionally have an effect on the target country, but only if the desired change in the target’s behavior is modest. In other words, for the target to change, the benefits of its unacceptable behavior have to be modest when compared to the high cost of sanctions. Even then, future relations with the target may be soured by using negative means to get the “win.”

The current sanctions on Iran, however, are not attempting limited objectives. Getting a country in a “bad neighborhood”—that is, where Iran’s potentially hostile adversaries either already have atomic weapons (Israel) or are nuclear aspirants (some Arab nations)—to give up its nuclear program is a tall order. Nations do not usually buckle to sanctions when they believe their national security, or even survival, is at stake. The only objectives more challenging for sanctions would be regime overthrow or other fundamental changes to Iran’s political system.

If sanctions can only potentially achieve modest goals at best, why do nations continue to use them with such frequency—especially the U.S. superpower, which is by far the biggest practitioner of this peculiar “isolationism” (attempting to isolate other countries, while itself intervening in other countries’ affairs all over the world)? The answer is international and domestic symbolism. When military options are too harsh or counterproductive (as in the case of Iran) and diplomatic negotiation is perceived as too weak or as appeasement, governments need to show international observers and domestic constituencies how tough they are and that they are “doing something” about the target’s unacceptable behavior. In this limited sense, sanctions are usually successful in making a political statement.

But of course, that statement may very well be counterproductive to changing target behavior. When coerced, everyone from children to the leaders and populations of countries naturally resist, if nothing else out of pride. This is called the “rally around the flag” effect. The phenomenon happens when a country is under attack militarily, economically, or even symbolically, and it usually makes the target and its population push back harder.

And let’s not kid ourselves: Western sanctions against Iran are not just designed to get rid of its nuclear program, but to undermine an admittedly odious regime. But external pressure, which is even more unlikely to achieve this yet more ambitious goal, would probably strengthen the autocrats in Tehran.

In the long term, getting Western ideas into Iran through more trade and investment will do more to undermine the regime than punitive sanctions.

But what do we do about Iran’s nuclear program, which is a source of pride across Iranian society? Some Western sources have said that the United States has offered to recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium in exchange for turning over 3,000 kg of low-enriched uranium to Russia. Although Iran may not consider Western validation of its existing right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to peacefully enrich uranium as much of a concession, such positive incentives by the West may have more chance of success than negative policies of isolating Tehran.

Ivan ElandEven such positive incentives may not work to persuade an Iran fearful of Israeli, Arab, or U.S. attack to give up working on the ultimate deterrent to such threats, but it’s worth a try and has a greater chance of working than punitive pressure.

Ivan Eland

This article first appeared in The Independent Institute and is republished with permission.

Published by the LA Progressive on December 18, 2010
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About Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and a Ph.D. in Public Policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He also has served as Evaluator-in-Charge (national security and intelligence) for the U.S. General Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office), and has testified on the military and financial aspects of NATO expansion before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on CIA oversight before the House Government Reform Committee, and on the creation of the Department of Homeland Security before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Dr. Eland is the author of The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy, as well as The Efficacy of Economic Sanctions as a Foreign Policy Tool. He is a contributor to numerous volumes and the author of 45 in-depth studies on national security issues.

His articles have appeared in American Prospect, Arms Control Today, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Emory Law Journal, The Independent Review, Issues in Science and Technology (National Academy of Sciences), Mediterranean Quarterly, Middle East and International Review, Middle East Policy, Nexus, Chronicle of Higher Education, American Conservative, International Journal of World Peace, and Northwestern Journal of International Affairs. Dr. Eland's popular writings have appeared in such publications as the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, USA Today, Houston Chronicle, Dallas Morning News, New York Times, Chicago Sun-Times, San Diego Union-Tribune, Miami Herald, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Newsday, Sacramento Bee, Orange County Register, Washington Times, Providence Journal, The Hill, and Defense News. He has appeared on ABC's “World News Tonight,” NPR's “Talk of the Nation,” PBS, Fox News Channel, CNBC, Bloomberg TV, CNN, CNN “Crossfire,” CNN-fn, C-SPAN, MSNBC, Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (CBC), Canadian TV (CTV), Radio Free Europe, Voice of America, BBC, and other local, national, and international TV and radio programs.