What would Alex George say about coercing Iran?

By Stephen M. Walt


Will the U.S. effort to coerce Iran succeed? For the past ten years or more, the United States has been engaged in coercive diplomacy with the Islamic Republic. Specifically, it has imposed increasingly punitive economic sanctions, repeatedly threatened to use force, and engaged in various covert acts of pressure, such as the Stuxnet virus attack. The campaign of escalating pressure has been accompanied by the demand that Iran end its nuclear enrichment program or, at a minimum, restrict it in ways that would make it impossible for Iran to even contemplate building a nuclear weapon.

This is precisely the sort of question that the late Alexander George and his colleagues examined in the book The Limits of Coercive Diplomacy, first published back in 1971. George defined “coercive diplomacy” as the use of military force or military threats “to persuade the opponent to do something, or to stop doing something, instead of bludgeoning him into doing it or physically preventing him from doing it.” The book examined three cases of this approach — the Laos crisis of 1961, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign in Vietnam and identified eight conditions that are associated with successful coercive diplomacy by the United States.

I studied with George as an undergraduate at Stanford and wrote my senior thesis on the same subject (my cases, if you’re curious, were the Gulf of Tonkin incidents, the seizure of the Pueblo, and the seizure of the Mayaguez.). So I thought I’d go back and look at George’s eight conditions and see what they might predict about the success/failure of U.S. efforts to coerce Iran today. Here goes:

1. Strength of U.S. motivation. Coercion is more likely to succeed when the coercer is highly motivated and resolved. It’s clear that the United States is pretty serious about this issue, even though Iran’s nuclear enrichment program doesn’t pose a direct threat to the United States itself (i.e., it’s not like Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962). And while the U.S. might be highly motivated to prevent Iranian development of an actual weapon, it is not clear how much the U.S. really cares about Iran having the theoretical potential to acquire a bomb as opposed to a real weapon. Among other things, denying them the theoretical capacity in perpetuity would be almost impossible. Washington would like Tehran to be as far away from a “breakout” capability as possible, but just how far is that? A month away? A year? In short, the actual strength of U.S. motivation here isn’t entirely clear, despite the tough talk we’ve heard from Obama and Biden in recent weeks. But let’s be conservative and score this in the plus column.

2. Asymmetry of motivation favoring the United States. Even assuming we care a lot, it is hard to believe that we care more about this issue than Tehran does. Iranian politicians of all kinds have expressed support for their nuclear energy program, and the history of bad blood between our two countries makes them especially reluctant to cave in to U.S. pressure. Moreover, as I argued a week ago, they have the additional incentive of proving to us (and others) that they can’t be blackmailed, because they don’t want to invite additional pressure by showing that blackmail works. Lastly, repeated U.S. threats (and the presence of nuclear arms in Israel, Pakistan, India, and Russia) gives Iran ample reason to seek at least a latent capability. Bottom line: This condition is not satisfied in this case. Read more…

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

As published in www.foreignpolicy.com on March 14, 2013.


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