Editor’s Note: By ratcheting up economic pressure on Iran (and rebuffing Iran’s past offers of compromise), the Obama administration is looking tough and winning some credit from neoconservatives and other influential U.S. opinion leaders, but the outcome of this approach could dangerously boomerang.

As Iran faces what it perceives as growing external threats and demands for “regime change,” it could decide that it has little to lose by actually building nuclear weapons as a necessary deterrent. That possibility should spur a new U.S. strategy for engagement, says the Independent Institute’s Ivan Eland:

In advance of the next installment of negotiations to be held in Istanbul in January 2011, Gary Samore, the White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction, threatened new Western sanctions on Iran, especially in the energy field.

Threatening more sanctions, however, will likely be an unproductive approach to getting Iran to end its nuclear program.

When assessing human psychology, experts say that negative reinforcement is scarring. For example, instead of scolding or spanking children, parents should ignore bad behavior — unless it’s dangerous — while positively reinforcing good behavior.

Since relations between countries usually come down to negotiations between their leaders, the same principles apply. Positive incentives are better than negative sanctions.

Some argument could be made for narrowly focused sanctions to prevent Iran from getting nuclear bomb-making material and technology — that is, to prevent aforementioned “dangerous” behavior. But international and bilateral sanctions have long gone way beyond that, already affecting the energy sector, officials of the Revolutionary Guards who now have great influence over the Iranian regime, etc.

History shows that such negative sanctions can occasionally have an effect on the target country, but only if the desired change in the target’s behavior is modest. In other words, for the target to change, the benefits of its unacceptable behavior have to be modest when compared to the high cost of sanctions.

Even then, future relations with the target may be soured by using negative means to get the “win.”

The current sanctions on Iran, however, are not attempting limited objectives. Getting a country in a “bad neighborhood” — that is, where Iran’s potentially hostile adversaries either already have atomic weapons (Israel) or are nuclear aspirants (some Arab nations) — to give up its nuclear program is a tall order.

Nations do not usually buckle to sanctions when they believe their national security, or even survival, is at stake. The only objectives more challenging for sanctions would be regime overthrow or other fundamental changes to Iran’s political system.

If sanctions can only potentially achieve modest goals at best, why do nations continue to use them with such frequency — especially the U.S. superpower, which is by far the biggest practitioner of this peculiar “isolationism” (attempting to isolate other countries, while itself intervening in other countries’ affairs all over the world)?

The answer is international and domestic symbolism. When military options are too harsh or counterproductive (as in the case of Iran) and diplomatic negotiation is perceived as too weak or as appeasement, governments need to show international observers and domestic constituencies how tough they are and that they are “doing something” about the target’s unacceptable behavior.

In this limited sense, sanctions are usually successful in making a political statement.

But of course, that statement may very well be counterproductive to changing target behavior. When coerced, everyone from children to the leaders and populations of countries naturally resist, if nothing else out of pride.

This is called the “rally around the flag” effect. The phenomenon happens when a country is under attack militarily, economically, or even symbolically, and it usually makes the target and its population push back harder.

And let’s not kid ourselves: Western sanctions against Iran are not just designed to get rid of its nuclear program, but to undermine an admittedly odious regime. But external pressure, which is even more unlikely to achieve this yet more ambitious goal, would probably strengthen the autocrats in Tehran.

In the long term, getting Western ideas into Iran through more trade and investment will do more to undermine the regime than punitive sanctions.
But what do we do about Iran’s nuclear program, which is a source of pride across Iranian society?

Some Western sources have said that the United States has offered to recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium in exchange for turning over 3,000 kg of low-enriched uranium to Russia.

Although Iran may not consider Western validation of its existing right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to peacefully enrich uranium as much of a concession, such positive incentives by the West may have more chance of success than negative policies of isolating Tehran.

Even such positive incentives may not work to persuade an Iran fearful of Israeli, Arab, or U.S. attack to give up working on the ultimate deterrent to such threats, but it’s worth a try and has a greater chance of working than punitive pressure.

Ivan Eland is Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland has spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. His books include The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.

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