On Iran, try backscratching, not blackmail

If someone threatened to punish you unless you did something you didn't want to do, how would you respond? Unless the threatened punishment was really horrible you'd refuse, because giving into threats encourages the threatener to make more demands. But what if someone offered to pay you to do something you didn't want to do? If the price were right you'd agree, because that act of cooperation on your part sends a very different message. Instead of showing that you can be intimidated over and over, it simply lets people know that you're willing to cooperate if you are adequately compensated.

This simple logic has thus far escaped most of the people involved with U.S. policy towards Iran. Today, the conventional wisdom is that the only way to elicit cooperation from Iran is to keep making more and more potent threats, what Vice-President Joe Biden recently called "diplomacy backed by pressure." Even wise practitioners of diplomacy like my colleague Nicholas Burns maintain that the U.S. and its allies must combine engagement with sanctions and more credible threats to use force, even though the United States and its allies have been threatening Iran for over a decade without success.

As my opening paragraph suggests, this approach ignores some important scholarly work on how states can most easily elicit cooperation. Way back in the 1970s, MIT political scientist Kenneth Oye identified a crucial distinction between blackmail and what he called "backscratching" and showed why the latter approach is more likely to elicit cooperation.  States (and people) tend to resist a blackmailer, because once you pay them off the first time, they can keep making more and more demands. And in international politics, giving in to one state's threats might convey weakness and invite demands by others. By contrast, states (and people) routinely engage in acts of "backscratching," where each adjusts its behavior to give the other something that it wants in exchange for getting something that it wants. Backscratching -- which is the essence of trade agreements, commercial transactions, and many other types of cooperation -- establishes a valuable precedent: it shows that if you'll do something for me, then I'll do something for you. 

Not surprisingly, this is precisely what Iran's government has been trying to tell us. Their bottom line for years has been that they were not going to negotiate with a gun to their heads. Or as Supreme Leader Khameini said in rejecting the most recent proposals for direct talks:

"The ball, in fact, is in your court. Does it make sense to offer negotiations while issuing threats and putting pressure? You are holding a gun against Iran saying you want to talk. The Iranian nation will not be frightened by the threats."

Such statements are normally interpreted as just another sign of Iranian intransigence, but as just discussed, there is a sound strategic basis for Iran's position. It is, in fact, precisely the position we would take if somebody were threatening us in the same way.

The other problem with the Western approach, of course, is that threatening Iran reinforces their interest in having a latent nuclear weapons capability, and might eventually convince them that they need to get an actual bomb. Therefore, if our goal is to keep Iran as far away from the nuclear threshold as possible, imposing ever-harsher sanctions, constantly reiterating that "all options are on the table," and warning darkly of war should diplomacy fail is not a smart way to proceed.

And it's worked really, really well thus far, hasn't it?

It is also worth noting that the closest the US and Iran have come to deal was the aborted attempt to arrange a fuel swap of enriched uranium for the Tehran research reactor in 2009. The proposed deal nearly succeeded because it was a backscratching arrangement that didn't require Iran to capitulate to threats. (And by the way, the Turkish and Brazilian officials who helped mediate the arrangement blame its failure mostly on the United States, not Iran).

So why do so many smart people keep embracing an approach to Iran that is internally contradictory and has consistently failed for more than a decade? I'm not entirely sure, but I suspect it has a lot to do with maintaining credibility inside Washington. Because Iran has been demonized for so long, and absurdly cast as the Greatest National Security Threat we face, it has become largely impossible for anyone to speak openly of a different approach without becoming marginalized. Instead, you have to sound tough and hawkish even if you are in favor of negotiations, because that's the only way to be taken seriously in the funhouse world of official Washington (see under: the Armed Services Committee hearings on Chuck Hagel).

Finally, nothing I've written above should be interpreted as evidence of sympathy for Iran's current government. The Islamic Republic has done some pretty objectionable things at home and abroad, but then again, so have plenty of countries that we routinely think of as friends and allies. And it's not as though the United States is innocent of wrongdoing, as plenty of Iraqis, Pakistanis, Nicaraguans, Guatemalans, and others would be quick to tell us. My concern is simply with figuring out how to achieve a diplomatic outcome that would secure our primary objectives and avoid another pointless war in the Middle East.

It remains to be seen whether Obama will break out of the stale consensus that has hamstrung our approach to Iran thus far. For evidence that more sensible views can be found, see UK diplomat Peter Jenkins' views here and the informative exchange between former US diplomat Thomas Pickering and Iran's UN Ambassador Mohammed Khazaee here. The only question is whether the Obama administration can come up with a strategy that will convince Iran to remain on this side of the nuclear threshold and that will eventually open the door to a more positive relationship with that country. More than anything else, it will require tossing aside the confrontational approach that has been a consistent failure for more than a decade.


Stephen M. Walt

Arms and influence

The Obama administration is reportedly rethinking its previous reluctance to send arms to the Syrian rebels. With violence continuing to rise and Assad refusing to blow town, the apparent aim is to ensure that the United States has some influence or leverage over at least some of the parties who will be competing for power in a post-Assad Syria.  

This is the logic presented by former State Department official Frederick C. Hof, who told the New York Times that "the odds are very high that, for better or worse, armed men will determine Syria's course for the foreseeable future ... For the U.S. not to have close, supportive relationships with armed elements, carefully vetted, is very risky."

FP's Marc Lynch has already provided a comprehensive set of reasons why arming the rebels is not a good idea. Here I just want to challenge the idea implicit in Hof's statement above -- that providing arms to a warring group earns you lasting gratitude, leverage, or long-term influence. The issue isn't whether you can "carefully vet" the recipients or not; the issue is whether giving arms today has any lasting effects on what even well-vetted recipients might think, feel, or do in the future.

Indeed, isn't this a movie we've seen many, many times? The United States poured billions of dollars of aid into South Vietnam, but we could never get that government to behave the way we wanted. We sent vast piles of weaponry -- including sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles -- to the Afghan mujaheddin, and ended up helping create Al Qaeda. We bankrolled Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress and listened to his advice about overthrowing Saddam Hussein, only to watch him go rogue after Hussein was toppled. We've given hundreds of billions of dollars to the Karzai government in Afghanistan, but that hasn't made it any less corrupt or any more compliant with U.S. wishes. Needless to say, it's easy to think of lots of other recipients of American largesse who take the money and the arms and then do whatever they think is right, even if it is sharply at odds with Washington's wishes.  

And it's not just us, of course. The Soviet Union gave its own clients lots of money and arms over the years, but it rarely bought them a lot of lasting influence. Remember when Anwar Sadat kicked them out of Egypt and realigned with us instead?

This situation should not surprise us in the slightest. Politics can be a brutal and nasty business, especially during a civil war and certainly in conflict zones like the Middle East. In such circumstances, gratitude to a foreign patron is a luxury that few actors can afford, and especially not to a country whose reputation in the region is less than stellar. The question isn't even "what have you done for me lately?"; it is always "what will you do for me now?" 

Assad's opponents would undoubtedly love to get lots of lethal weaponry from the United States (along with anything else we're willing to provide), and it might help them oust the Syrian dictator more swiftly. But what giving arms won't do is provide Washington with much influence over what these groups do afterwards.