Iranian Air Force MiG-29 fighter aircraft | Credit: Wikimedia Commons - Photo: 2013

‘Coercive Diplomacy’ With Iran is Questionable

By Jeremy R. Hammond* | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

TAIPEI (IDN | Foreign Policy Journal) – The January/February issue of Foreign Affairs features an article titled ‘Getting to Yes With Iran: The Challenges of Coercive Diplomacy‘ by Robert Jervis. By ‘Getting to Yes’, of course, Jervis means compelling Iran to obey Washington, and by the Orwellian phrase “Coercive Diplomacy”, of course, means issuing ultimatums and threats of criminal violence.

Jervis begins, naturally, with the usual obligatory assumption that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. No evidence is required for this; it is simply a matter of faith for the priesthood of the state religion who have taken upon themselves the role of manufacturing consent for U.S. policy. Thus he begins,

It might be wise for the United States to resign itself to Iran’s development of nuclear weapons and to focus on deterring the Islamic Republic from ever using them. But U.S. leaders have explicitly rejected that course of action….U.S. officials have also made it clear that they consider direct military action to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon an extremely unattractive option, one to be implemented only as a regrettable last resort.

It is not that Jervis is unaware of the fact that there is no credible evidence that Iran is developing nukes. Indeed, he acknowledges that according to the U.S.’s own intelligence community, “the Iranians halted their development of nuclear weapons in 2003″.

Something Jervis does not point out is that according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the international nuclear watchdog agency, which is actively monitoring and inspecting Iran’s nuclear program, there is “no concrete proof that there is or has been a nuclear weapon programme in Iran”. But the acknowledgment in passing of the U.S. intelligence assessment that Iran today has no such program does not prevent Jervis from basing his arguments entirely on the axiomatic assumption to the contrary.

His argument proceeds as follows: Since the U.S. has rejected the idea of acquiescing to a nuclear-armed Iran, and since it considers direct military action against Iran’s nuclear program to be an “unattractive option”, therefore

that leaves only two tools for dealing with Iran’s advancing nuclear program: threats and promises, the melding of which the political scientist Alexander George labeled “coercive diplomacy.” To succeed in halting Iran’s progress toward a bomb, the United States will have to combine the two, not simply alternate between them. It must make credible promises and credible threats simultaneously – an exceedingly difficult trick to pull off.

Exceedingly difficult, indeed, to pull off describing a policy consisting of threats and ultimatums as “diplomacy”, but we aren’t to question such doublespeak.

As an example of how “exceedingly difficult” it is to “pull off” such “coercive diplomacy”, Jervis cites the case of Iraq and how “the threats issued by the George W. Bush administration during the run-up to the 2003 invasion” were “rendered ineffective” because Saddam Hussein was “so suspicious of the United States that a real rapprochement was never within reach”. So if only Saddam had trusted the U.S. more, then “a reasonable settlement” could have been achieved.


It is difficult to know what to make of such incoherent nonsense, particularly in light of the fact that the Bush administration was lying about the threat of non-existent weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and the only “rapprochement” it would accept was for Iraq to acknowledge and destroy all of its non-existent WMD. Since this obviously wasn’t possible for Iraq to do, a “reasonable settlement” could indeed not be achieved, and war ensued.

The case of Iran, Jervis contends, is even more difficult, and “Washington faces daunting obstacles in trying to establish the credibility of its threat to strike Iran.” The fact that it is a violation of international law (namely, of the UN Charter) for a nation not only to use force, but to threaten to use force in international relations is irrelevant to Jervis’s discussion, just as it is irrelevant to him that there is no evidence Iran is actually trying to build nuclear weapons.

He continues, noting that “threatening to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities is not the only form of pressure the United States can exert”; it can also “maintain the current punishing sanctions regime” that constitutes an act of collective punishment of the civilian population of Iran, which is also a violation of international law (namely, the Fourth Geneva Convention). In addition, the U.S. can “conduct additional covert actions, especially cyberattacks” – “additional” because it is understood that the U.S. has already engaged in covert actions against Iran, including working with Israel to create the Stuxnet worm to infect Iranian computer systems.

Jervis next outlines how the U.S. “can make its threats more credible”, the first of which is to “voice them publicly and unambiguously”, which, he notes, has already been done.

Next, the Obama administration must wage “a concerted campaign to inform the American public about the impending risk of war” – just as the Bush administration did with Iraq, and once again on the false pretext of a phantom menace.

That campaign should include “a congressional resolution authorizing the possible use of force against Iran”, meaning, in practical terms, that Congress should be remiss in its duties and unlawfully relegate to the Executive branch the authority to make war, which is granted by the U.S. Constitution only to the Congress – a purely symbolic proposed resolution, to be sure, given the fact that presidents regularly start wars without a Congressional declaration of war as required by the Supreme Law of the Land, a usurpation of power accepted without question by members of Congress and the intelligentsia serving in the priesthood.

Moreover, even if there was a Congressional declaration of war against Iran, any attack on that country would constitute a war of aggression, “the supreme international crime”, as defined at Nuremberg, “differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole”.

Following the failure of the above steps, the U.S. “could issue an ultimatum”. How this third step differs from the first two is not entirely clear; but as a further step,

U.S. policymakers could also stop publicly expressing their reluctance to use force and instead emphasize that they think an attack on Iran would benefit the United States. They could claim to expect that a U.S. strike would deal a dramatic blow to Iran’s nuclear effort, serve as a powerful warning to other potential proliferators, strengthen the United States’ global reputation for resolve, and possibly even trigger an Iranian revolution.

In other words, U.S. policymakers should pretend to be complete idiots and act as though they are totally oblivious to the dangerous implications of any attack on Iran and the unintended but predictable consequences expert analysts have been warning about for years.

‘No nuclear weapons program’

That is, of course, in addition to pretending that they don’t understand that the U.S.’s own intelligence community has continued to assess that Iran today has no nuclear weapons program, a fact which, even when acknowledged, as in Jervis’s case, may then be simply ignored, deemed somehow irrelevant to any analysis of the situation.

The “most likely deal” that the U.S. could get, Jervis suggests, would be for Iran “to stop designing warheads” – presumably, he means nuclear warheads, which there is no credible evidence Iran is “designing”, but Jervis may perhaps also be suggesting that Iran may not have even conventional missile systems – and “to refrain from enriching uranium above the 20 percent level” – which is also something Iran is not doing. Iran has only enriched to 20 percent, and no more, for civilian applications.

In addition to stopping things it isn’t doing, Iran must “accept limits on the capacities of its enrichment facilities” that are undefined; “allow robust inspections of its nuclear facilities”, also undefined, but presumably above and beyond those Iran is legally obligated to permit under its safeguards agreement with the IAEA under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to which it is a party; and, finally, “agree to refrain from building facilities that the United States could not destroy.”

So Iran must agree, under the threat of force, to only build facilities that the U.S. could destroy, if the U.S. were to actually act on that threat. Any refusal on the part of the Iranians to make their nuclear facilities vulnerable to destruction by the nation threatening war against them would, of course, be judged unacceptable intransigence, proof of bad faith, and a possible casus belli.

Jervis adds that Iran, under those terms, could keep its most protected facility, the Fordow enrichment plant, “since it is vulnerable to a U.S. strike”. In sum, Iran must stop doing a number of things it isn’t doing, and if it doesn’t, then the U.S. will threaten violence – just as it was demanded of Iraq that it destroy all the WMD that it didn’t have, and if it didn’t do that, then war would commence.

Further on in his article, Jervis offers another approach: the U.S. could “unilaterally suspend some of its sanctions against Iran” and “halt all its military preparations related to Iran, or declare that the option of using force is no longer on the table.” But it would be “unlikely” that the U.S. would cease punishing the civilian population of Iran for their government’s crime of disobedience to Washington or that it would cease violating international law by threatening the use of force in international relations, and so Jervis gives this option no more consideration.

While the comparison of the U.S.’s “coercive diplomacy” with Iraq is certainly appropriate, Robert Jervis unfortunately chooses not to heed the most important lesson it has to offer, too obvious to mention.

*Jeremy R. Hammond is an independent political analyst, the founding editor of Foreign Policy Journal and a recipient of the Project Censored Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism. This article is being reproduced in view of its unconventional approach in its original version [IDN-InDepthNews – February 9, 2013]

2013 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

Photo: Iranian Air Force MiG-29 fighter aircraft | Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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