Iran Carrots and Sticks

American sabre-rattling has weakened the U.S. case and undermined international willingness to squeeze Iran.


Article created by the The Century Foundation.

For the conservative hardliners who direct America’s foreign policy, a looming war with Iran is the result of their having mollycoddled the mullahs in Tehran. “One of President George W. Bush’s most senior foreign policy advisers” startled listeners last week, the New York Times reports, with the assertion that “the problem is that our policy has been all carrots and no sticks.”

All carrots? No sticks? What can these people be talking about?

From almost the day President Bush took office, dialogue even with constructive elements in Iran has been off the table. The administration slammed the brakes on the cautious movement toward discreet post-9/11 cooperation against a common enemy—al Qaeda and its Taliban clients in Afghanistan—when the president branded Iran the fulcrum of his imagined “Axis of Evil.”

Thus did the United States halt the tortuous movement, facilitated by a reformist presidency in Iran, to ratchet down a quarter-century of hostilities—hostilities that grew out of the previous quarter-century of autocracy installed by American-engineered “regime change” in Iran. After a slow minuet between the governments of Bill Clinton and Mohammad Khatami, trying to find convergent interests in places like the United Nations, re-empowered conservatives in the United States were back to talking about . . . regime change in Iran.

Even before the intoxicating success of an easily accomplished mission in Iraq, conservative strategists were crowing that “real men” had their eyes on Tehran. Far from looking for ways to help embattled Iranian moderates show concrete results for a cautious opening to the West, Washington hardliners bet on ultimately bringing down the Islamic regime. Why settle for tinkering reforms?

For three years, the United States has been calling for UN sanctions against Iran’s nuclear energy program, threatened to stop shipping bound for Iran to search for potential nuclear materiel, and hinted at military “surgery” amid nostalgic reminiscences of the Israeli attack on Iraq’s Osirak reactor.

The administration never suggested bilateral talks that could lead to diplomatic relations. Indeed, after its saber-rattling alarmed the Europeans, it only grudgingly acquiesced in a European-led initiative aimed at keeping Iran’s nuclear program from proceeding to weaponization. Even as the administration’s political project in Iraq unraveled, it continued to resist including Iran in discussions to guarantee Iraq’s future.

It is not as if the United States did not have some real carrots to offer in a negotiation. It has still not released to Iran the assets President Carter froze as leverage—ultimately successful—to force release of the U.S. diplomats taken hostage in 1979. As part of a normalization agreement, it could lift economic sanctions that inconvenience, though hardly cripple, Iran’s international trade. It could support a timetable for a nuclear-free Middle East, a goal that a friendly Egypt has doggedly promoted for years.

Of course, with enfeebled moderates now replaced by hardline conservatives in Tehran (as in Washington), the politics have become much more complicated: It would be awkward to strike terms with an Iranian leadership that some UN inspectors privately call “nutcases—one hundred percent totally certified nuts,” as Seymour Hersh relates, when Washington declined to deal with more pragmatic Iranians.

But our own hardliners’ public brandishing of military sticks has already weakened the U.S. case and undermined international willingness to squeeze Iran. Indeed, the apparent determination by conservative policymakers in Washington to threaten Iranians with attack by nuclear weapons is perhaps the biggest boon to the Islamist forces around President Mahmoud Ahmedinajad—and the most potent threat to America’s nonproliferation goals. A threat by a nuclear weapons state to use them legitimizes any other country’s effort to acquire them.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff, Hersh reports, strenuously resist the nuclear option. But with a new generation of Dr. Strangeloves roosting inside the administration, it will be hard for the president to foreswear the threat of nuclear attack—and thus impossible to maintain any international coalition behind him. The risks of Iran acquiring a nuclear arsenal are still a decade away; those of nuclear warfare, much more immediate.

These are not just concerns of the international community beyond our shores. A large and growing share of Americans share them as well. Barely a third of the public would support military action against Iran over its nuclear program (and that is before the likely cost in escalating gasoline prices).

Meanwhile, the Congress would do well to review the War Powers Act, as well as the United Nations Charter, and remind the president where the authority lies to initiate an act of war—and to punish it.