Politicians, particularly those unskilled in foreign affairs, frequently believe that threats are more effective than flexibly applying the full range of options, admittedly an approach requiring some skill and patience. What are the impacts of relying on the zero-sum policy of threats rather than seeking a positive-sum outcome? This post is the first in a series to examine the complexities of assessing in advance how Tehran may respond to the new U.S. policy based on threats.
For four decades, U.S. policy toward Iran has wavered back and forth, moving for a moment toward conciliation, then back to a strong emphasis on threat. “Carrot or stick?” is the perennial question in foreign policy. One hopes no leader would ever phrase the endless variety of choices in such a dangerously simplistic manner; this is no binary choice, though the behavior of politicians sometimes suggests that in their hearts, they truly believe it is. Simple as the question may be, no political science theory provides a surefire guide to policymakers; no analytical method a surefire process for calculating how an adversary will respond. As a result, both conciliation and threat repeatedly backfire.
With the understanding that policy is a flow of action like a pipe containing a mixed stream of warm and cold water, global dealings with Iran can be summarized as a world policy with a flow toward Iran connected in a circle to an Iranian policy flowing back to the world. In the “Dealing With Iran: Obama Strategy” diagram, the joint strategy toward Iran of the Six Powers (the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany) at the end of Obama’s second term is connected in such a circle with Iran’s response. Although Obama’s actual policy always included both threats and inducements, the diagram simplifies this, showing only inducements, i.e., a “flow of warm water.” The diagram pictures a “reinforcing” loop (actions of A reinforce actions of B), over time yielding exponential growth (a “virtuous circle” if you like the results; a “vicious circle” if you don’t).
Defined narrowly (in terms of the nuclear agreement, without linkage to other issues), the diagram illustrates accurately the positive-sum outcome that Iran limited its nuclear development and in return received economic benefits, benefiting both sides. This statement says nothing about the overall state of or trends in relations; it says nothing about the “limits to growth” of this particular cycle, of other dynamics that might be growing faster and perhaps pushing relations toward a turning point. All such considerations would require a more detailed assessment than is presented in this initial view. This is the simplest of models that nonetheless contains an essential, if temporary and limited, truth–a bit more than a snapshot, for it endured long enough to demonstrate its utility, but a good deal less than an accurate long-term forecast, given reality’s sensitivity to rapidly evolving political conditions. The diagram is a model of one dynamic, a dynamic that was for a time dominant; it is far from a model of reality.
In May, Trump unilaterally broke the nuclear agreement between Iran and the West, demanding new concessions from Iran as the price for continuing to honor any agreement constraining Iranian nuclear R&D. [See “Dealing with Iran: Trump Strategy.] The choice for Iran was to pay a higher price for maintaining their side of the bargain or going free and being faced with the threat of additional U.S. hostility. Indeed, before it had even had time to react, Tehran was in fact subjected to further threats. Washington, in sum, was punishing Tehran for keeping its side of a narrow (nuclear) bargain based on the claim that the original agreement made by Obama should have restricted other, non-nuclear Iranian activities. In stark contrast to thee unified P6 strategy during the Obama Administration, the isolated US strategy as of May 2018 under the Trump Administration tossed out the former global coalition policy of emphasizing inducements while keeping threats on the table, leaving only the threats/punishments and arguably strengthening those threats/punishments.
Does the reinforcing loop of bilateral cooperation (world offers trade; Iran gives up nukes) mean that reinforcing loops always work? No, the truth is that reinforcing loops almost always fail, perhaps because they require careful management or people with good will on both sides simultaneously. A reinforcing loop is simply a situation that is getting more and more…, i.e., exponential growth. Pretty soon something has to change, but if you happen to like the results, you won’t want to stop the momentum until it is too late…a good reason to think ahead. The Obama Administration might have benefited from following up the initial victory with a determined effort to adhere strictly to its side of the bargain and a sincere search for ways to strengthen the accord or the broader relationship. The joint campaign against ISIS gave Obama the opportunity; Obama’s arming of Riyadh for its bombing campaign in Yemen poisoned the broader context. By the time Obama left Washington, the agreement was ripe for failure for external reasons.
U.S.-Iran relations have for four decades been characterized by people of good will on both sides but almost never simultaneously. Timing is crucial. Careful management is also required: each side, looking anxiously for its promised payoff, will be quick to accuse the other of cheating if any unforeseen delays occur, such as Western failure rapidly to deliver on its economic promises. Domestic politics also interferes with positive-sum reinforcing feedback loops: anti-Iranian conservatives in the U.S. have from the start rejected the beneficial nuclear agreement for not including more benefits (preferring no loaf to half a loaf). More general obstacles to the continuation of desired reinforcing loops include running out of resources, since once the loop gets moving, its exponential nature will consume resources at a rapidly accelerating rate. Sadly, especially in international relations, many people fail to give credit to controversial positive-sum agreements for side benefits. The agreements are likely to be controversial in the first place only because of some prejudice against the other side. Even when the other side plays nice, the prejudice remains. Just as the nuclear agreement went into effect, Washington and Tehran both discovered to their mutual embarrassment that they needed each other’s help to fight ISIS in Iraq, but how many opponents of the nuclear agreement admitted that their opposition might have prevented needed military cooperation? The most basic contribution of the circular diagram is simply that it tells the user that the reality is a flow of current whose speed must be managed by the policy-maker, not an event to be chalked up as a permanent victory.
All of these considerations were obvious at the time, but something is only “obvious” when you focus on it, and policy-makers have many things to focus on. Putting a risk in a diagram helps keep it in focus. Computer models that show how dynamics (e.g., the flow of trade, the level of rhetoric, the size of troop deployments) evolve or might evolve helps keep subtle background changes in focus.