Shaping Tehran’s nuclear cost/benefit calculations

Guest post by Mark N. Katz

Washington has not yet succeeded in getting Tehran to reassure the international community about its nuclear program. But the Obama Administration’s efforts to increase economic sanctions against Iran for not doing so now appear to be paying off. The EU’s willingness to cut back on buying Iranian oil, the dramatic collapse in the value of Iran’s currency, and the increasing economic stress on the Iranian people are all higher costs that Tehran is paying for defying the international community on the nuclear issue.

President Obama’s success in inflicting genuinely painful economic sanctions against Iran may result not in Tehran renouncing nuclear weapons, but seeking to acquire them all the more quickly.

The Obama Administration seems to think that no matter how much Iran’s leaders may want to acquire nuclear weapons, Washington has finally succeeded in raising the costs of their attempting to do this so high that the only rational choice Tehran now has is to give up the attempt. This is because the economic costs that these sanctions impose on them increasingly threaten the survivability of Iran’s Islamic revolutionary regime. And surely the rulers of Iran would prefer giving up their nuclear ambitions to falling from power.

Rationality, though, has a way of appearing differently in different places. I last visited Iran in May 2005, before Ahmadinejad was first elected president. Even then, I was told that Iranians had noticed something about American foreign policy: the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and Iraq which were countries that did not possess nuclear weapons, but the U.S. has not invaded North Korea—a country that does possess them. The lesson they drew from this was that America was likely to behave far more circumspectly toward a nuclear Iran than to a non-nuclear one.

But surely, I argued, there was far more at stake for Iran than whether the U.S. behaved circumspectly toward it. I pointed toward the then recent example of the Libyan-American rapprochement in 2003 in which Libya gave up its nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction programs in return for close collaboration with the U.S. The Iranian scholars and journalists I met with all laughed derisively at this, saying that Tehran would never kowtow to the U.S. like Qaddafi had done. Besides, one of them asked, what was to prevent America from turning against Qaddafi once he had given up his nuclear program?

In 2011, this is exactly what the U.S. did. While the U.S. did not cause the uprising against Libya, actions taken by the Obama Administration and several U.S. allies prevented Qaddafi from quickly crushing his opponents and greatly helped the latter bring down his regime.

This, of course, was a good thing for the Obama Administration to have done. The lesson that Tehran undoubtedly drew from this experience, however, was that giving up its nuclear ambitions at America’s behest will not stop the U.S. from acting to bring down the Islamic regime later should the opportunity ever arise.

Just as the Obama Administration wants it to, Tehran understands that the U.S. will continue trying to weaken it for pursuing its nuclear program.  But the unintended consequence of Obama’s successful policy toward Libya is that Tehran also believes the U.S. will continue trying to weaken it even if it gives up its nuclear program.  So what incentive, then, does Tehran have to cooperate with America and others on the nuclear issue?

The Obama Administration is so dedicated to increasing sanctions against Iran for not giving up its nuclear program that it might not be able to acknowledge even to itself how what happened this past year in Libya might make Tehran even more fearful of cooperating with the U.S. than defying it. President Obama’s success in inflicting genuinely painful economic sanctions against Iran, then, may result not in Tehran renouncing nuclear weapons, but seeking to acquire them all the more quickly.

If this is indeed the lesson that Tehran has drawn from what happened to Qaddafi, then the lesson that Washington needs to learn is: in formulating a policy designed to affect how an opponent calculates the costs and benefits of continuing actions that the U.S. does not like, American foreign policymakers must also understand how that opponent sees the costs as well as the benefits of complying with the U.S. vs. continuing to defy it.

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University and the author of several books. His most recent book, Leaving without Losing: The War on Terror after Iraq and Afghanistan, is due out in March. 

This post was originally published on Professor Katz’s blog, Travels and Observations, and can be found here.