Iran sanctions: the water jar experiment

Many critics, including the Wall Street Journal’s Brett Stephens, have compared last month’s Joint Action Plan agreement reached with Iran to the disastrous Munich Agreement of 1938, but it is perhaps also productive to consider an entirely different and less momentous event from that same historical period. In 1942, the American psychologist Abraham Luchins conducted a classic experiment using water jars. The participants were each given three water jugs of various stated capacities and asked to measure out a desired quantity of water. They were then asked to repeat the process with different quantities of water an additional nine times. To reach the correct result, the participants had to make certain computations and the same formula worked the first five times. An even simpler formula could be used to solve the next five challenges, but the experiment revealed that most participants tried to apply the more complex formula that worked on the first five water jar challenges even though the simpler formula would have solved the remaining challenges more easily.

The “water jar” phenomenon may now be at work on Capitol Hill. Policy makers in Washington have worked long and hard to build the sanctions regime and the Treasury Department has labored equally hard for many years to convince foreign governments and even private companies to shy away from dealings with Iran. For more than a decade, this approach has been the primary vehicle for confronting the Iranian regime – even as the Islamic Republic has systematically and consistently targeted and killed hundreds of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Congressional Republicans seem to favor enacting new sanctions legislation to increase America’s bargaining position at the negotiating table while Democrats on Capitol Hill appear to favor conditioning new sanctions on the progress of the talks (or lack thereof)  and Iran’s compliance with the interim agreement. The White House, on the other hand, opposes any new sanctions, arguing that they will drive the Iranians away from the negotiations table and lead to war.

Sanctions Are Not An End Onto Themselves

When this debate resumes in Washington after the Thanksgiving holiday, it is important to remember that sanctions are not an end onto themselves. They are a tool of limited value; not a magic panacea. Contrary to the claims of some U.S. and Israeli sanctions’ advocates, sanctions alone were never going to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons. That is why the Israelis have repeatedly – and very publicly – hinted at a military strike – and even President Obama has half-heartedly mouthed the catechism of “keeping all options on the table.” The oft repeated mantra of keeping all options open constituted a tacit recognition that the economic measures imposed upon Iran are, standing alone, insufficient to prevent the Iranian regime from developing an atomic bomb. The effectiveness of both Israeli threats and U.S. platitudes was therefore always dependent upon them being understood by both Iran and our allies as the logical endpoint of a policy of gradually escalating pressure. If they failed to halt Iran’s march toward the Bomb, the long-fought for sanctions regime would at least demonstrate to America’s European allies that the U.S. had exhausted all measures short of military force.

In the Bush years and the first term of the Obama presidency, this policy of sanctions escalation made sense for three reasons. First, Iran was not yet at the nuclear threshold. Second, the sanctions’ options had not been exhausted and pressure could be incrementally increased with a significant impact on the Iranian economy. Finally, the array of non-military options and the time Iran needed to reach the nuclear threshold gave U.S. policymakers an opportunity to delay any decision about using military force. Some have even argued that the Obama White House cynically used sanctions as a way to both hide the truth that the U.S. wasn’t going to follow through on threat to use military force against Iran and to deter the Israelis from a military strike of their own.

Taking a less cynical view, however, does not change the basic facts in play. The interim agreement makes clear that the U.S. will not use military force to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon and that the U.S. no longer opposes Iranian enrichment of uranium. Moreover, regardless of how many billions of dollars in sanctions relief the regime in Tehran initially receives, the sanctions regime studiously put into place over more than a decade is now likely to quickly erode. Even before the negotiations commenced in Geneva, there were ominous signs that U.S. efforts to curb Iran’s banking (and money laundering) networks in Europe were coming under attack.

For the White House, the end of sanctions may be a desired result of its hoped-for “Grand Bargain” with the Iranians, but for the regime’s opponents on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, this is a time for sober reflection. Even at the apex of the sanctions regime, most of the world’s most powerful corporate interests opposed the U.S. sanctions regime and there can be little doubt that even the modest sanctions relief Tehran obtained in Geneva last month will spawn a powerful global constituency to press for further normalization of relations with the world’s greatest state sponsor of terrorism. Only a few months ago, contemplating new business ties with Iran posed severe risks – both legal and reputational – for most corporations. Today, what multi-national energy company or global financial institution doesn’t dream of getting back into the Iranian market before its competitors? What U.S. ally (not to mention our competitors in Russia and China) wants to risk being the last country to arrive at the great Iranian gold rush? Iran understands this perfectly, which is why its leaders are crowing about their victory in Geneva.

What the Joint Action Plan Has Achieved

In short, the interim agreement in Geneva has accomplished three things: it has removed the credibility of the U.S. threat of military force; it has established a powerful deterrent against an Israeli strike against Iran (which would now contravene the efforts of the U.S. and all the world’s major powers) and it has set in motion the eventual dismantling of economic sanctions.

Iran skeptics on Capitol Hill should take little solace in the possibility that the negotiations with Iran will ultimately fail because it should be obvious to anyone listening carefully to the White House that it has no intention of preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons regardless of whether the negotiations fail. “The American people do not want a march to war,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters last week. If Iran moves forward with its nuclear program, the alternative to “war” – or at least a military strike – will henceforth be either appeasement or containment.

Either way, new sanctions will not stop Iran’s quest for the Bomb.

The Way Forward

Back in 1942, Lurchins gained an additional insight into the way human beings solve problems. After they’d completed the first set of challenges, he changed up the experiment and enjoined some participants in the study with the words “don’t be blind.” The result was that more than half of the participants who received this warning recalibrated, and applied the simpler formula to solve the remaining problems.

With Iran, nothing will be that easy, but those of us who believe preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons is a vital strategic interest of the United States need to start thinking beyond the framework of the sanctions regime. The formula that has been effective in the past will not solve our dilemma now. The hour is too late for sanctions to prevent Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold. The White House has set in motion too many incentives for too many powerful stakeholders to keep the flood of new investors from working tirelessly to cast away an embargo they have always abhorred. In short, it will take more than legislation to achieve what Churchill famously called “a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigor.”

About the Author
Gary M Osen is the managing partner of Osen LLC, a boutique litigation firm specializing in terror financing, money-laundering and looted art cases. Mr. Osen has what the Washington Times described as “a penchant for tackling larger-than-life cases” and developing new and creative legal theories that challenge some of the world's largest companies and most powerful governments. The New York Times has recognized him as “an internationally consulted legal authority on terror financing.” He has been quoted and featured in most of the leading newspapers and magazines in the United States and around the world, including Time Magazine, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Times of London, the Economist, Der Spiegel and Haaretz.
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