Déjà Vu Iran

Once again two days of talks between Iran and the P5+1 world powers have ended without agreement. It is clear that the positions remain far apart on the substance. No time or place for the next talks have yet been agreed. This is not surprising as the strategy of coercive diplomacy is not an overtly successful one; this strategy has had only 6 lasting successes out of 36 attempts since 1990. So what is coercive diplomacy, why try it and why does it usually fail?

The end of the Cold War rivalry made it easier for Western states to threaten and use force as part of conflict management because the risk of uncontrollable escalation vanished. However Western states have had difficulty translating their overwhelming military superiority into coercive diplomacy successes. It has proved difficult to use coercive diplomacy to stop or reverse acts of aggression, end (support for) terrorism, and end WMD programs. Iran is both a supporter of terrorism and is proceeding with a nuclear program.

Understanding the conditions under which coercive diplomacy succeeds or fails represents a major challenge for theory and practice. Coercive diplomacy seeks to resolve crises and armed conflicts short of full-scale war. So despite the pitiable chances of success the P5+1 prefer coercive diplomacy against Iran as an alternative to war with Iran.

Coercive diplomacy is a reactive strategy relying on threats, and inducements to influence an adversary to stop or undo the consequences of actions already undertaken; for example Iran dismantling its nuclear enrichment facilities. The use of threats/limited force may, but need not, be accompanied by assurances in order to enhance the adversary’s incentive to comply with the coercer’s demand. The P5+1 have tried all of these but to no avail.

Coercive diplomacy is an influence strategy that leaves the choice between compliance and defiance to the adversary; so it is not up to Iran to decide if they wish to be attacked as an alternative to compliance with ending their nuclear enrichment program.

There are alternatives to coercive diplomacy. Full-scale or brute force is a control strategy that deprives the adversary of any choice by forcing compliance upon it. Escalation from limited to brute force means that coercive diplomacy has failed. The definition of limited force hinges on the intent communicated to the adversary and the nature of the military operations; not the amount of physical force employed. Use of threats and limited force constitute coercive diplomacy only if the coercer prefers compliance to full-scale war.

The threat conveyed must be sufficiently potent to convince the adversary that the costs of non-compliance will be unbearable. This is where the issue lies with Iran. To date the P5+1 and Israel have not succeeded in this. The threat must be credible in the mind of the adversary; he must be convinced that the coercer has the will and the capability to execute it in case of non-compliance. To date the P5+1 and Israel have not succeeded in this.

For coercive diplomacy to succeed the conflict must not be perceived as zero-sum. A degree of common interest in avoiding full-scale war must exist. Each side must be persuaded that it can gain more by bargaining than by trying unilaterally to take what it wants by force. This appears to be an element lacking in the negotiations with Iran. What can Iran gain by not proceeding with a nuclear enrichment process? (other than prevent an attack against it, or end the sanctions); and What can Iran gain by not supporting terrorist organizations?

The P5+1 have not overtly placed these questions with convincing answers on the table hence coercive diplomacy is doomed to failure. The P5+1 and Israel look at North Korea and see Iran. Pre-emptive and preventive strikes appear to be a foregone conclusion to ensure that Iran doesn’t become a North Korea situation.

Take note that it is important to distinguish between temporary and lasting successes. Coercive diplomacy and pre-emptive and preventive strikes can achieve temporary success and buy time. Lasting success will usually require subsequent negotiations successfully addressing the roots of the conflict.

The root of the conflict lies in resolving all of Iran’s regional issues and threat perceptions. That region is not just Israel; it includes Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan and the threat perceptions of Iran are not just against the West and Israel they are also against the Sunni world.

The roots of the conflict are not confined to Iran, they are global, they are part and parcel of human nature to be superior to one’s neighbor, they are part and parcel of non-proliferation efforts, and the (mis) conception that to be one of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, a world power, you also have to be one of the nuclear powers.

It is, therefore, unlikely that coercive diplomacy will have a higher rate of success in the future than it has enjoyed in the past.

Glen Segell, FRGS, is Researcher at The Institute for National Security Studies Tel Aviv, Lecturer at Bar-Ilan University and Senior Researcher for the Ariel Research Center for Defense and Communication

About the Author
Dr Glen Segell is Fellow at the Ezri Center for Iran & Persian Gulf Studies, University of Haifa.