Part of the reason why opponents to a nuclear deal with Iran are so bewildered by President Barack Obama’s diplomacy is because their belief that Iran can be forced to capitulate. They adhere to a George W. Bush administration-era argument: If the U.S. only were to ramp up pressure, it can dictate the terms of the deal instead of having to agree to a compromise.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
This argument is as reckless as it is disproven. In fact, the reason the Obama administration abandoned this path was because it realized that insisting on Iranian capitulation was more likely to lead to war than to victory. And that is precisely why it is defying any pressure — be it from the US Senate or the Israeli Prime Minister — to return to this policy.
What the hawks miscalculate is Iran’s ability to resist — and hit back. When Washington imposed on Iran the most comprehensive sanctions regime in history, Tehran did not capitulate. Rather, it responded to pressure with pressure. It took steps to adapt its economy to bend but not break — from weaning its budget off oil revenues, to utilizing unofficial financial networks and processes. Prior to President Rouhani’s election, it increased efforts to target Western and Israeli interests around the world — from suspected bombings to cyber attacks.
But most telling has been Iran creating new nuclear facts on the ground. As sanctions, cyber-warfare, and secret assassinations increased, so too did Iran’s stockpiles of low and medium enriched uranium, as well as its installation of first and second-generation centrifuges. Tehran’s calculus was at best unaffected by pressure or at worst partly driven by it — escalating pressure as a bargaining chip also gave Iran the incentive to advance its nuclear program for the same reason.
The steady stream of sanctions and other forms of pressure imposed by the West neither reversed nor halted the trajectory of Iran’s nuclear program.
If Obama were to follow the recommendation of Mitt Romney or Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and walk away from the negotiations — ostensibly to pressure Iran to agree to a better deal — it would only reignite an escalation cycle in which Tehran would match (or outmatch) new sanctions pressure by further advancing nuclear facts on the ground. If the two sides miraculously were to find their way back to the negotiating table, both sides would have new added leverage — not just the U.S.
A more likely scenario, however, is that the escalatory cycle would get out of control and lead to a military confrontation — not Iran’s capitulation.
By early 2013, this reality had dawned on the Obama administration. Looking at the world from the perspective of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei clarified why the Iranians perceived a very different incentive structure than that which hawks in Washington and Tel Aviv envisioned.
The Iranian regime suffered its greatest legitimacy crisis after the fraudulent 2009 elections. The elements within Iranian society who remained loyal to the Supreme Leader had shrunk. The smaller these constituencies became, the more their importance to the survival of the regime grew. The regime simply could not afford losing these last few remaining loyalists. To make matters worse for the regime, to these constituencies, the narrative of resistance against the West to uphold Iran’s independence was essential.
Any move by Khamenei that would be perceived by this constituency as a capitulation to Western demands risked turning them against him. Mindful of the regime’s already weak support base, the loss of these last constituencies could be existential and prove a greater threat to the Islamic Republic’s survival than even a military confrontation with Washington.
This created an unexpected situation for Washington. While Iranian decision-makers likely did not believe they could win a war against the U.S., they did believe they could survive one — and even come out of it stronger at home. Capitulation, however, would guarantee their demise.
Realization of this dilemma necessitated an exit from the escalation dead-end. It was not until President Obama established a secret bilateral channel with the Iranian government that a breakthrough occurred — because both sides agreed to freeze their pressure tactics and instead negotiate a comprehensive win-win solution.
That is why 47 Republican Senators and their intellectual kindred spirits are playing with fire: they are pushing for capitulation from a government in Tehran that the Obama administration knows sees capitulation as a greater threat to its survival than war.
This is precisely why the Obama administration has framed the continuation of negotiations with Iran as a matter of war and peace. Walking away from the talks at this point will make war all but certain — a reality most opponents of the deal negotiated with Iran both know and hope for.
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