Iran is under more pressure than ever to come clean on its nuclear program. Sanctions adopted in summer have slashed the country’s oil exports by more than half; new sanctions adopted by the EU on Monday went even further, significantly curbing Iran’s access to financial markets in Europe. As a result, revenues are drying up, Iran’s isolation is increasing, and the currency is losing value rapidly. A genuine economic crisis is unfolding. Western powers hope that sanctions will force Iran’s leaders to admit or convincingly disprove that the country is pursuing nuclear weapons.
At the same time, the U.S. and its allies are showcasing their military capabilities in the Gulf, not far from Iran’s shores. The purpose is clear. First, drills aim to deter Iran from trying to close the Strait of Hormuz, which officials have threatened to do several times. And second, deployments seek to make the implicit threat of military intervention more credible. Earlier this year, more sophisticated systems—including stealth fighter jets and anti-mine vessels—were deployed to the Gulf; in September, the U.S. hosted a high-profile mine-clearing drill with several friendly countries; and, just this month, the U.S. and Israel began a three-week anti-missile drill involving thousands of personnel and live-fire exercises.
The only “off-ramp” available to Tehran is capitulation. The reward—or “carrot”—is sanctions relief. And although the White House recently pushed back against Israeli insistence on setting clear “red lines” that would trigger military action, President Obama believes that an Iranian nuclear bomb is unacceptable, and that “every option is on the table.” His Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, believes that Iran will get the message once he deploys more forces to the region. Both candidates claim the use of force—or the “stick”—is an option.
Recent events and the condition of Iran’s economy might suggest that the carrots are getting sweeter for Iran and that the stick is intimidating. But there is no sign of Tehran backing down. In fact, there’s reason to believe that the carrots being offered are still too bitter and that the stick appears weak.
Let’s start with how Iranian officials frame sanctions. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has final say over Iran’s nuclear program and foreign policy, insists that there is no linkage between sanctions and the nuclear program. According to Khamenei, Iran is being sanctioned because of its most basic religious and cultural qualities—not because of specific policies. He frequently reminds Iranians that the country has endured sanctions for decades.
On October 10, Khamenei told an audience in North Khorasan Province that, “Sanctions existed since the beginning [of the Islamic revolution]… Today our enemies, both America and some other European countries, linked sanctions to the nuclear energy issue. They lie… They claim that if the Iranian nation refuses nuclear energy the sanctions will be stopped. They lie.”
The popular response to Iran’s economic crisis is more revealing. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has become the scapegoat. Members of parliament and editorialists argue that his policies, especially subsidy reform, set Iran up for failure. Sanctions only exacerbated a bad situation by this logic. And so any shift in policy must be economic rather than nuclear. Ahmadinejad’s presidency ends next year but there’s no reason to believe that his successor will do any better, however, so long as sanctions are in place.
Beyond the halls of power, people in the streets are attacking the government. Earlier this month, when a sudden drop in the value of the rial inspired street protests in Tehran, protestors chanted various slogans, none of which involved sanctions. “Leave Syria alone! Think of us!” they yelled, begging the regime to fix Iran’s problems first rather than support Bashar al-Assad. “Death to the dictator!” others chanted. No one chanted “End domestic enrichment! Lift sanctions!” because the nuclear program remains popular inside Iran and the regime has consistently—perhaps even convincingly—argued that sanctions are nothing new.
U.S. officials have rightly avoided taking too much credit for the effectiveness of sanctions. This is wise, since celebrating a country’s misery is inappropriate when the currency is collapsing, and inflation is harming people who have no say in the nuclear program. What the U.S. has done instead is promote a narrative that encourages Iranians to blame their leaders for ruining the economy. This makes sense. But it also reinforces the impression that the U.S. wants regime change.
On October 3, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had this to say: “They have made their own government decisions—having nothing to do with the sanctions—that have had an impact on the economic conditions inside the country… Of course the sanctions have had an impact as well, but those could be remedied in short order if the Iranian government were willing to work with the P5+1 and the rest of the international community in a sincere manner.” How might that message be interpreted in Tehran?
Khamenei remains steadfast in his rhetoric, while those in the streets and parliament are eager to blame the president for mismanagement. Meanwhile, the U.S. promises sanctions relief even though it diminishes their effect and blames Iran’s leaders. Capitulation seems possible only if the passing of time proves Ahmadinejad innocent and more Iranians recognize the connection between sanctions and the nuclear program. Until then, the carrots–or inducements–will remain too bitter, even if Iran desperately needs sanctions to be lifted.
That leaves the threat of military force as the only other means of changing minds in Iran. The problem with posturing, however, is timeless: shows of force are meant to convey a message. But that message doesn’t necessarily translate. At this point Iran might even be deaf to threats. For the last ten years, it has been bookended by hundreds of thousands of American troops, who were stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan. All the while, the U.S. presence in the Gulf remained constant, with the Fifth Fleet operating out of Bahrain, and representing what can only be described as the greatest military force in the region.
America’s presence is undeniable but its track record for responding to Iranian provocations is weak. The last time the U.S. engaged Iranian forces was in the late 1980s, when the U.S. defended maritime shipping in the Gulf at the height of the Iran-Iraq war, which led to Operations Nimble Archer and Praying Mantis. Iran’s navy was crippled in a matter of hours; two Iranian oil platforms were also destroyed as punishment. Since then, Iran has sponsored terrorism abroad including attacks that killed Americans, trained and equipped insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, and refused to address the possible military dimensions of its nuclear program in spite of multiple UN Security Council resolutions.
And after 10 years of thankless, grueling, expensive wars of occupation, fought to the east and west of Iran, it’s conceivable that Tehran feels immune to American threats, and assumes that the U.S. isn’t ready to commit force so soon. This may or may not be the case; we can’t pretend to know what the Supreme Leader is thinking. But when U.S. officials argue that the military option is “on the table,” we must remember that Tehran has been subject to implicit threats for years. Even President George W. Bush, who included Iran in his “Axis of Evil,” never used force.
It’s hard to have faith in the carrots and sticks approach right now. To be clear: this conclusion doesn’t legitimize military intervention. Violence communicates intent but—even though Iran’s nuclear program is advancing—IAEA safeguards remain in place, and most assessments hold that Iran is years away from nuclear weapons, if it ever decides to pursue one (right now the international community is worried about research activities with military applications). So there is still time for sanctions to work and no reason to act hastily given the high costs of intervention.
Might U.S. presidential candidates debate the Iran question in another four years?