The Power of Diplomacy?

Early last summer, sinister Internet ads and TV commercials constantly reminded unsuspecting Twitter users and cable viewers of Iran’s status as a state sponsor of terrorism, imploring us to stop the Iran deal, now! and voice our opposition to our local Republican representatives. But despite mounting criticism from the conservative sector fearful that Washington was conceding too much to an untrustworthy nation, the United States signed a nuclear accord with Iran, titled the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), last July.

Despite the thousands who protested the deal in Times Square and on the West Lawn of the US Capitol during rallies last year and former House Speaker John Boehner’s threat to sue Obama over the accord that was “worse than anything [he] could’ve imagined,” the JCPOA, officially implemented last October, has thus far seemed to generate highly favorable and promising results. The weekend of January 15th marked Iran’s release of five Americans long imprisoned in the country; in return, the US pardoned individuals who had violated the long-standing sanctions regime against Iran. The prisoner release coincided with the day that nuclear-motivated international sanctions, which have effectively crippled Iran’s economy over the past decade, were officially removed, after confirmation that Iran had indeed complied with obligations to impede its construction of a nuclear bomb. As a result, its nuclear breakout time, the time needed to develop enough weapons-grade fissile material to build a nuclear weapon, has increased from two or three months to one full year. Furthermore, Washington and Tehran have also recently successfully resolved a substantial outstanding financial claim, in which the US paid Iran $1.3 billion for military equipment the shah of Iran bought thirty-seven years ago but never received. It certainly seems as if the deal has proved a success so far. Pleased with recent events, President Obama concluded that these diplomatic successes represent “proof of the United States’ influence in the world and the power of diplomacy.”

In light of robust conservative opposition, these preliminary achievements have given liberal proponents of the deal something to boast about. When U.S. Navy sailors were captured earlier this month upon reportedly accidentally entering Iranian waters, Secretary of State John Kerry attributed their swift release to “diplomatic strength and newly developed ties with Iran.” Even if this episode was nothing more than a lucky opportunity for liberals to further tout the promising results of the accord (although the Foreign Minister of Iran himself tweeted about the successes of “dialog and respect”), it is difficult to deny the benefits proceeding from the JCPOA. Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz previously claimed that the deal would “facilitate and accelerate” Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, but because of the accord, it would now take Iran nine or ten additional months to acquire the amount of fissile material needed for a bomb. According to President Obama, “these things are a reminder of what we can achieve when we lead with strength and with wisdom, with courage and resolve and patience […] America can do – and has done – big things when we work together.”

Can careful diplomacy indeed pave the way to better relations with Tehran in the future and prevail over the more “bellicose” approaches proposed by hawkish conservatives? Is it imprudent to praise the successes of the accord so early on? Will the warnings of skeptical and hawkish Republicans prove true in the long term, if Iran later takes advantage of our compromised position and cheats without reserve?

Last year, Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio suggested that by the time the next administration has the opportunity to revoke the accord, “we will potentially have multiple opportunities to prove that Iran is already in violation of the deal.” Given that Iran has repeatedly refused to comply with international nuclear standards in the past and began to construct two secret nuclear facilities until 2002, concerns that Iran may simply disregard the deal when convenient or continue its nuclear program in secret are not entirely unreasonable. After all, realist theory argues that states will first and foremost act in their own self-interest. Despite widespread acclaim for the successful prisoner exchange, Cruz and Rubio have criticized it as setting a “dangerous precedent” by giving Iran the better end of the deal. Is there any reason to trust that Iran is not determined to take advantage of our concessions? Will we regret not taking a more combative and aggressive approach toward our adversary from the start?  

Such insights at the present time are impossible to ascertain. Nonetheless, I propose two arguments: first, that it is foolish to think that patient and persistent diplomacy can preclude the possibility that Iran might cheat. In line with the realist argument, I suggest that no “power of diplomacy” could prevent Iran from taking advantage of the deal should it find it beneficial to do so. Second, that despite this future possibility, the JCPOA was nonetheless the best option to pursue and has already delivered tangible benefits. Diplomacy is a worthy and often rewarding objective, but it has its limits.

A liberal viewpoint might not only suggest that cooperation can be achieved by a diplomatic accord but that successful diplomacy will pave the way to better relations and more successful diplomacy in the future. This is precisely what Kerry alluded to when he suggested that “newly developed ties with Iran” motivated the Iranians to release the US sailors without incident, or Obama’s claims that working together can accomplish big things. This is the supposed “power of diplomacy”: that it can improve both the present situation and, by doing so, prospects for the future. Realism, in contrast, argues that a state’s primary objective is power, with which it can ensure its continued preservation as an autonomous state. States will act primarily in the interest of gaining and maintaining power, only cooperating when their self-interest aligns with that of another state, and no longer. There is no “power of diplomacy” at work in the realist world.

The realist approach deserves careful consideration here: one can never be too cautious, and Iran’s track record certainly suggests that it has no qualms about acting in its own self-interest. A nuclear Iran is undesirable for US and Israeli security concerns, but is it so unreasonable to suppose that Iran might want nuclear weapons to become the most influential power in the unstable Persian Gulf, in the interest of its own security? International sanctions have crippled Iran’s economy in recent years, and it has decided that its best interest at present would be to inhibit its nuclear program and comply with the accord in order to have the sanctions removed. At a future date, however, increasing security concerns might motivate it to decide otherwise. After all, it has already proved that it has the scientific capability to get very close to producing a weapon, and even under the sanctions regime, Iran continued to indigenously produce centrifuges and continue work at its nuclear facilities. Furthermore, the deal allows it to retain some nuclear capability for peaceful civilian purposes, and it will be able to decrease its breakout time over the span of the deal’s fifteen year period. This is not to say that Iran will take the first opportunity to cheat, but that one should not put too much faith in the power of diplomacy, as Iran will put its own security considerations first.

What are the alternatives? Given that Iran was still able to maintain nuclear activity and a breakout time of two to three months under past sanctions, not only would a stricter sanctions regime fail to effectively prevent their acquisition of a nuclear weapon, but it could backfire – without a potential end to sanctions in sight, Iran could disregard cooperation altogether and devote its resources to producing a bomb as quickly as possible. In fact, should Iran become so incensed by increased sanctions, it could always pull out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty altogether and prohibit any further inspections of its nuclear program, leaving us in a substantially worse position: with no intelligence on their progress toward a bomb. Others have advocated the hawkish approach of an outright aerial strike to eradicate Iran’s nuclear program altogether. Such an attack would immediately destroy any hope of future diplomatic cooperation with Tehran, and if it failed to successfully eliminate all of their nuclear capability, we might be faced with an even more hostile nation considerably more determined to produce a nuclear weapon – and one now definitely unwilling to allow inspections on its progress.

Perhaps there is no clear-cut best option that would appeal to all, but what is certain is that these neoconservative alternatives have equally unappealing potential outcomes. On the other hand, the opportunity for mutual cooperation can provide tangible benefits for the moment that mutual interests coincide. Some still argue that the removal of sanctions is still a high price to pay, providing Iran with $150 billion in unfrozen assets to sponsor terrorism (Iran has, and continues to, sponsor Syria’s Assad regime, Hezbollah, and other Shiite militant groups). Yet others contend that the terrorist groups Iran sponsors are mostly anti-Sunni and of little threat to US security; in any case, they present less of a threat than a nuclear armed Iran.

Therefore, from both a liberal and realist viewpoint, diplomacy is the best option. Nor is it too early to praise what the JCPOA has already accomplished – five Americans are safely back home and Iran’s nuclear breakout time is substantially increased for the present, no matter what it might decide to do later. Where the two viewpoints differ is over the power of diplomacy: we can certainly hope that the liberal theory will prove true and that over time, we can cultivate better relations with Tehran. But we should pursue diplomacy with caution and not be too confident in its inherent power: the JCPOA’s early accomplishments do not guarantee future cooperation. We should work to convince Tehran that our interests align and work together when they do, but we should not be surprised should Tehran one day disagree.

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