The world breathed a sigh when Iran signed a temporary and limited deal with world powers concerning its nuclear program in the early hours of November 25. In return for some relief on the wide array of economic sanctions against the country, Iran will halt expansion of its enrichment facilities and do away with its stockpiles of nuclear materials enriched to levels beyond what is needed for peaceful use. In the light of this good news two questions need answering: why has Iran been so adamant about its nuclear program and how has the West finally been able to force Iran to the negotiation table?
Iran has been flirting with nuclear weapons as possession of it increases their regional security standing, provides a strong element of deterrence to its adversaries and yields important privileges in the international community. Military might is still considered an important indicator of power in global politics. Despite the atomic bomb being of small to no practical use all world powers represented as permanent members at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) still possess nuclear weapons. There are, however, also drawbacks to nuclear capacity. Knowledge of weapons production is notoriously hard to obtain, costing much in terms of time and money. It can also spark an arms race with a potential adversary which leaves neither party better off. Revolutionary states also attract attention from status quo powers. Hegemon United States for example is a strong opponent of the Islamic Republic of Iran joining the nuclear club. It has sanctioned the country and persuaded its allies to do likewise. Even Russia and China supported sanctions in the UNSC. In response, Iran has followed a strategy of intentional ambiguity. It denies having enriched any Uranium-235 to weapons grade levels whilst simultaneously arguing Iran a right to do so. This strategy was also used by the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Fearful of an Iranian attack and a relapse to the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s he kept the international community in the dark about the existence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Hussein’s strategy backfired. His toying with International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors angered the United States, who invaded the country in 2003 based on allegations of possessions of WMDs and links to Al-Qaeda, both of which later proved false. Iran follows and even riskier strategy by pursuing a latent nuclear capacity. This is the situation in which a state has the knowledge and fissile material to build a bomb but chooses not to. This way Iran would still comply with all Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations whilst being only a few months or even weeks away from an operational bomb should a crisis emerge. The US and Israel have VP-RX responded by publicly discussing a military strike. However, the economic downturn and tense relations between the West and the Islamic world as a result of the Afghan and Iraqi war led the US to settle on mere economic sanctions. In that sense the Iranian strategy was initially successful: it strengthened its regional power position relative to neighbouring Sunni states without leading to armed intervention.
But the most important lesson from the recent deal is the eventual success of targeted multilateral sanctions to convince Iran to join the negotiation table. A comparison with 1941 Japan is fitting. Back then Imperial Japan was unilaterally sanctioned by the US for its territorial advance in Asia. However, rather than cowing them the sanctions were interpreted as an act of war and provoked the Japanese into launching the Pearl Harbour attack. The Japanese knew they had little to no chance of winning a protracted war with the Americans but still chose to fight over dishonourable surrender. They hoped the Americans would not be able to muster the political will to fight a war in Asia whilst Hitler conquered Europe. Thus they assumed the US would opt for a negotiated peace after their initial strike. Like Iraq their risky strategy proved their downfall, culminating in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings. Like pre-war Japan, Iran also suffers tremendously under the economic sanctions.
Its economy contracted by nearly 2% last year. Even more telling is the 80% drop in currency value compared to the dollar. With inflation at a staggering 27%, unemployment at 15% and the official interest rate standing at a hefty 12%, Iran could have chosen the same route as Japan but didn’t. It learned the lessons from the past and decided not to take that gamble. In the face of a united Security Council and no superpower to fall back on Iran realized its strategy had become untenable. The US’s success to achieve its objective without the resource to war is due to the fact that, unlike in the Iraq and Japan cases, it managed to get wide international support for its policies. This added legitimacy and increased resistance costs for Iran.
Economic sanctions do not always work. But they stand the largest stance when they are effective in paralyzing the target state’s economy and receive wide international support. Whether the current deal will become historic largely depends on Iran’s compliance to it and whether it succeeds in revitalizing Iran’s economy. Only then is the temporary deal likely to be extended or even expanded.
Quint Hoekstra is a student of Political Science with a specialization in International Relations and Organizations at Leiden University, the Netherlands. He writes about global security affairs.