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
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
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.