United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Report: Sanctions Backfiring, Try Direct Dialogue

            A new report by top former U.S. officials concludes that sanctions are backfiring. Punitive economic policies have hardened Tehran’s resistance to pressure and instead “contributed to an increase in repression and corruption,” warns the Iran Project report. As a result, efforts by the world’s six major powers to broker a diplomatic compromise on Iran’s controversial nuclear program may be more difficult. Sanctions also “may be sowing the seeds of long-term alienation” among Iranians about the United States. The report, released April 17, reflects the views of 35 former U.S. ambassadors, generals, senior officials and national security experts including former U.N. ambassador Thomas Pickering, former CIA director Mike Hayden and former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.

            The Iran Project report urges the Obama administration to offer a new diplomatic initiative with sanctions relief in exchange for verifiable cooperation on Iran’s nuclear program. It also proposes a direct dialogue between Washington and Tehran – in coordination with the so-called P5+1 world powers – to advance other U.S. regional interests, including Israel’s security, an easing in Gulf tensions, resolution of the Syrian crisis, and stability in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Iran Project, an independent nonpartisan group organized under the auspices of The Foundation for a Civil Society, outlines strategic options for the United States to consider if it pursues direct talks with Iran. The following are excerpts from the report, with a link to the full text at the end.

SUCCESSES, SHORTFALLS, AND RISKS OF RELYING ON THE PRESSURE TRACK 
            Much has been accomplished through pressure, but the results have fallen short of expectations in several ways, and unintended consequences may pose risks.
 
            Successes. U.S. policies have developed and preserved strong commitments from friends, allies, and partners; underscored the United States’ commitment to non-proliferation of nuclear weapons; blocked Iran’s efforts to modernize its military; weakened Iran’s economy; possibly slowed the expansion of Iran’s nuclear program; and possibly helped add some momentum within the existing framework for nuclear negotiations with Iran.
 
            Shortfalls. U.S. policies may have slowed but they have not stopped the advancement of Iran’s nuclear program. They have not led to a breakthrough in nuclear talks (sanctions have weakened Iran’s economy but not yet led to changed policies or actions); nor have they improved Iran’s human rights practices (in fact, they may have empowered anti-reform factions). Efforts to isolate Iran have not markedly reduced its influence in the region.
 
            Risks. U.S. policies may have narrowed the options for dealing with Iran by hardening the regime’s resistance to pressure; contributed to an increasing repression and corruption within Iran; distorted trade patterns and encouraged the expansion of illegal markets in the region; and possibly contributed to sectarian tensions in the region by pushing an isolated Iran further toward dependence on its Shia allies. Sanctions-related hardships may be sowing the seeds of long-term alienation between the Iranian people and the United States...
 
STRENGTHENING THE DIPLOMATIC TRACK: STRATEGIC OPTIONS
            A more assertive and sustained diplomatic initiative with Iran would need to focus first on achieving greater transparency and control over Iran’s nuclear program, thereby inhibiting Iran’s ability to make a rapid “breakout” toward the production of a nuclear weapon. Excluding other issues of concern to Iran could prove difficult, however, since Iran is not likely to agree to a comprehensive—or perhaps even a limited—nuclear agreement unless it is assured about the United States’ long-term intentions.
            No change in U.S. policy will be possible unless President Obama makes the negotiation of a nuclear deal with Iran one of his top priorities. To reiterate, strengthening the diplomatic track of U.S. policy toward Iran does not mean abandoning the pressure track, including maintaining the option of using military force should the Iranians move quickly to build a bomb. But if the President decides to try to work with Iran, he will have to take into account the political and strategic challenges of managing those different policy tracks and the irrespective goals, benefits, and costs.
 
Retaining credibility in the threat of military action.
            Whether Iranian leadership has taken seriously President Obama’s stated willingness to take military action to “prevent” Iran from getting a nuclear weapon has been called into question by critics. Their doubts would increase if the President decided to negotiate directly with Iran and put a serious offer on the table. Yet the more the President threatens the use of force, the more difficult it will be for Iran’s defiant leadership to consider any offer, and the more the President will be under pressure to use military force. 
 
            Maintaining sanctions while using them as bargaining chips. During negotiations, the United States will need to use the gradual lifting of sanctions as a bargaining chip; Iran will push for more and faster relief. Yet there are limits to what the President can deliver by Executive Order, without Congressional consent—and it will be critical to match the easing of pressure with verifiable Iranian cooperation on key nuclear issues.
 
            Evaluating Iran’s intentions. The latest U.S. intelligence assessments conclude that Iran could not divert safeguarded materials and produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb without those activities being detected. But as Iran continues to develop its enrichment program, the evaluation of Iranian intentions becomes more urgent and more problematic.
 
            Weighing the future value of engagement against Iran’s present antagonistic behavior. Iran’s continuing support for the Assad regime, to take one example, leads some experts to argue that talking with Iran would be unwise and fruitless. Yet some form of cooperation with Iran may be essential in post-Assad Syria. Near-term tactical issues will compete with and complicate long-term strategic opportunities on almost every issue in dealing with Iran.
 
            Preparations for talking with Iran: The belief of Iran’s Supreme Leader that the United States’ underlying objective is regime change has become an obstacle to progress in any negotiations. Once the President has made a decision to strengthen the diplomatic track of America’s Iran policy, the U.S. government will need to take active steps—rhetorical assurances will not suffice —to convince the Supreme Leader that the United States does not seek to overthrow his regime. Other early challenges for the President and his team, in addition to establishing a bilateral channel for regular talks, might be:
 
            Understanding what the U.S. wants, what Iran wants, and what both countries want. Iran likely wants respect, recognition of its role in the region, its full “rights” under international law and the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, U.S. forces out of the Middle East, lifting of all sanctions, and a single-state solution to the Israel–Palestine conflict (some Iranian leaders have said they would support any solution that is acceptable to the Palestinians), among other objectives.
            The United States likely wants full transparency of Iran’s nuclear program and constraints on Iran’s enrichment of uranium, cessation of Iranian threats against Israel and support for Hezbollah and Hamas, improved human rights practices, and a two-state solution to the Israel–Palestine conflict, among other priorities.
Iran and the U.S. both want a stable Iraq and Afghanistan, defeat ofAl Qaeda and Taliban, no military conflict In the region, Gulf stability, and cooperation on drug trafficking.
 
            Understanding problematic language and concepts. Iranians and Americans attach different interpretations to many words and phrases. The differences are not trivial and can disrupt and confuse discourse. For example, Iran wants “talks” and the U.S. seeks “negotiations”; Iran wants to begin by focusing on past complaints, while the United States prefers to focus right away on “practical next steps.”
 
Click here for the full text.
 

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