The Middle East Channel

Playing into the mullahs' hands

A majority of Americans support President Barack Obama's approach of using sanctions and diplomacy to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Yet, the lack of progress in recently resumed multilateral negotiations with Iran has given hawkish policymakers and pundits an opening to renew their calls for the United States to threaten a military strike against Iran. Sanctions and diplomacy alone will not convince "the mullahs," they say, absent the belief that the United States will attack Iran's nuclear facilities.

Their argument is as alluringly simple as it is dangerously naïve. There is a decisive difference between leaving all options on the table while pursuing a permanent diplomatic resolution, as the President has, and actively threatening military action. Failing to comprehend this distinction, those pushing for a more bellicose posture actually strengthen the hand of the Iranian regime and reduce U.S. leverage in negotiations, thus making a permanent resolution to concerns over Tehran's nuclear program less likely.

First, as President Obama and many in his administration have noted,"loose talk of war" benefits the Iranian government by driving up the price of oil -- Iran's main source of revenue. The Centre for Global Energy Studies estimates that Iran is on track to earn $56 billion from oil sales this year -- its third largest haul ever, despite a one-third reduction in its export volume caused by unprecedented sanctions.

Higher oil prices undermine U.S. efforts to resolve concerns over Iran's nuclear program in two ways: by providing the regime with the capital it needs to expand its program, and by partially shielding the Iranian economy from the full effects of the sanctions imposed on it. These perverse outcomes strengthen Iranian diplomats' hands at the negotiating table. Expanded nuclear facilities and stockpiles of enriched uranium bankrolled by oil revenues give the regime more chips with which to bargain, enabling it to demand more in return. At the same time, the economic booster shot of higher oil prices inhibits the spread and severity of growing popular discontent with the government -- the importance of which is explored below -- reducing pressure on it to reach a mutually agreeable resolution on its nuclear program. 

Second, creating an expectation of impending military action in the minds of Iran's leaders actually incentivizes the acceleration and expansion of their nuclear program. This was the nature of former Mossad director Ephraim Halevy's objection to a March 5, 2012 op-ed by Mitt Romney in which the candidate stated his intention to put forward a "military option" that would threaten the ayatollahs with "ruin." This was effectively "telling the Iranians, 'You better be quick about it,'" according to Halevy. "If I'm sitting here in the month of March 2012 reading this, and I'm an Iranian leader, what do I understand? I have nine more months to run as fast as I can because this is going to be terrible if the other guys get in."

Halevy's reasoning holds true in any scenario in which the Iranian regime comes to regard an attack by the United States as likely, including under the current administration. Deliberately instilling this belief through bellicose rhetoric undermines the United States' leverage and prospects for success in negotiations, as an Iranian government undertaking a rapid expansion of its nuclear program can demand greater concessions in exchange for capping or scaling back the volume and enrichment levels of its output.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, rhetoric threatening a military strike on Iran provides its leaders with exactly what they need and crave most: the support of their people. 

Colin Kahl, the former top Middle East official at the Pentagon, identifies "regime survival" as Tehran's "first and foremost" interest. That interest is under grave threat, as unprecedented international sanctions -- though partially offset by high oil prices as described above -- roil a population still smarting from the regime's brutal anti-democracy crackdown. Reporting in late June from Iran, New York Times Columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote, "Western sanctions have succeeded in another way: Most blame for economic distress is directed at Iran's own leaders, and discontent appears to be growing with the entire political system." Kristof's conclusion from the ground is clear: "the regime seemed on the defensive, its base corroding."

This growing threat to the government's survival pressures its nuclear negotiators, making the loosening of sanctions an urgent Iranian objective in exchange for which the United States and its allies may increasingly be able to garner concessions. As Kahl notes, the sanctions "appear to be affecting Iranian calculations, as evidenced by the regime's increasing willingness to negotiate over its nuclear program."

Threats of military force relieve the Iranian regime of that very pressure by rallying the Iranian people behind their national leaders against "western aggression," whether real or perceived. As Kristof warns, "[Sanctions'] success makes talk of a military strike on Iranian nuclear sites unwise as well as irresponsible. Aside from the human toll, war would create a nationalist backlash that would cement this regime in place for years to come -- just when economic sanctions are increasingly posing a challenge to its survival." 

There is thus a decisive difference between leaving all options on the table while pursuing a permanent diplomatic resolution and actively threatening military action. And while it is prudent for the United States military to prepare for a contingency with Iran, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey testified it already has, it is reckless to mistake that contingency for sound strategy.

With a growing consensus of American and Israeli security experts arguing that a military strike would not be effective in stopping Iran's nuclear program, it has become clear that the success of the critical effort to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon hangs on the outcome of diplomacy. Those pushing the American Government to threaten military force must come to realize that their words not only strengthen Tehran's hand in negotiations, but hasten the day when a nuclear weapon could be in its grasp.

Dylan J. Williams is the Director of Government Affairs at  J Street.

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