Why diplomacy and sanctions don’t mix

Change often occurs at a faster pace than people can comprehend. That is certainly the case with the quickly shifting political realities in Washington on Iran. In less than 50 days, America will be led by a president who made dialogue with Tehran a campaign promise–and yet he won. Perhaps even more surprising, one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington failed–in the middle of an election year– to convince the US Congress to pass a resolution calling for a naval blockade of Iran, even though the resolution had more than 250 co-sponsors.

The debate in Washington is no longer whether to negotiate with Iran, but how, when and in what sequence such negotiations should take place. This, however, does not mean that talks will occur or that they will succeed. This is partly due to an unchanging feature of the political landscape in Washington–the reliance on economic sanctions to look tough and to gain leverage.

President-elect Barack Obama, who told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee earlier this year that he stood firm on his call for negotiations with Iran and his promise to do away with "self-defeating preconditions", has sought to balance his pro-dialogue position by adopting a strong appetite for additional economic sanctions against Iran.

While a senator, he was the original co-sponsor of the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act of 2008, which would have intensified existing sanctions and paved the way for additional divestment. Obama argued at the time that sanctions were an integral part of any diplomatic strategy. "In addition to an aggressive, direct, and principled diplomatic effort, we must continue to increase economic pressure on Iran," he said in a statement. Some of Obama’s advisors have taken this a step further and argued that sticks–meaning sanctions–would have to come first in any carrot-and-stick approach to Iran.

Obama is of course absolutely right that any successful approach to Iran must include a combination of incentives and disincentives. And sanctions can theoretically provide the US with additional leverage over Iran. The problem with this line of thinking, however, is that it fails to recognize that existing sanctions already provide the US with significant leverage. But this leverage can only be utilized in the context of a negotiation. Sanctions can play a critical function in a US negotiation with Iran if, that is, Washington is willing to do away with them in return for significant Iranian behavioral changes.

That willingness has thus far not existed in Washington. The definition of leverage in the Bush administration was one’s ability to get something for nothing. That approach has clearly failed; it does not characterize negotiations, but rather ultimatums and threats. In negotiations, you can only get something by giving something. Indeed, it’s not the threat or imposition of new sanctions that will change Iranian behavior, but rather the offer to lift existing sanctions. Herein lies America’s as yet untapped reservoir of leverage over Iran.

The crux, of course, is that this leverage only can be actualized if Washington and Tehran find their way to the negotiation table. And that is why the inclination to impose new sanctions prior to the commencement of talks can be so devastating to Obama’s agenda: Imposing new sanctions on Iran–whether they be congressional sanctions or executive orders–will only reduce the prospects for diplomacy by poisoning the atmosphere and further increasing mistrust between the two capitals, which in turn defeats America’s ability to tap into its reservoir of leverage over Iran in the first place.

The same is of course true for Iran: any effort by Tehran to intensify its efforts to undermine Washington’s policies in the region as a means to gain leverage prior to negotiations will only render such talks less likely.

To succeed with his pro-diplomacy agenda, Obama must not only avoid the fallacy that Washington doesn’t have leverage over Iran and recognize the value of offering to lift existing sanctions in return for Iranian policy changes. He must also resist the temptation to undermine the path to negotiations by imposing new sanctions before talks have begun–including resisting pressure from domestic constituencies whose motivation for sanctions historically has precisely been to prevent a US- Iranian diplomatic breakthrough to begin with.

The combination of incentives and disincentives that will succeed in advancing US interest vis-a-vis Iran is one in which diplomacy is at the center and sanctions are in the periphery–not the other way around.