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Domestic Constraints on Diplomacy

By Taylor Marvin

Why have negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program continued to stall? The simplest potential answer is that Iranian and P5+1 negotiators simply have incompatible minimally acceptable outcomes. Another theory is that fundamental differences between Iranian and Western negotiating styles have led to misunderstandings. Dina Esfandiary highlighted this possibility recently, noting that P5+1 negotiators misread to them-unacceptable Iranian offers “as a sign of their unwillingness to talk rather than an opening to negotiations.”

Another explanation for diplomacy’s slow progress is that one or both countries’ negotiators are too diplomatically constrained to offer, or accept, an otherwise mutually-acceptable bargain. Patrick Clawson recently discussed this possibility in the context of internal IRI divisiveness: what if the Iranian regime is too divided and dysfunctional to actually agree to anything? Even if P5+1 negotiators were to offer a “unilateral US unconditional surrender,” Clawson speculated in Foreign Policy, infighting among factions within the IRI regime might make even this best-case deal unworkable. Even if the P5+1 was willing to offer their counterparts everything they wanted, it’s unclear if Iranian negotiators can actually be counted on to represent the relevant policymakers back home.

But this argument misses the most important ramification of internal Iranian division. The Iranian regime’s disunity may hamper its ability to offer prospective carrots, but it also limits the efficacy of America’s stick — if internal divisions constrain diplomatic options, they arguably also constrain the ability of the American government to coerce Iran. Of course, deterrence will always be an easier face of coercion than compellence, particularly when successful compellence must influence numerous policymakers holding competing preferences. The specifics of Iran’s internal dynamics heighten this difficulty. While the Iranian regime as a body does not appear to derive its legitimacy from opposition to the West, individual politicians certainly can. Infighting gives these politicians a political incentive to avoid a settlement. It’s unlikely the threat of US strikes on nuclear targets will have any practical compellence effect on these domestically-vulnerable leaders, weakening the effect of coercion on the relevant policymaking body as a whole.

Rather than a threatening prospect to be avoided, US airstrikes could a political positive for hardliners alarmed by the prospect of a repeat of 2009’s post-election unrest. “An American strike,” Alireza Nader recently wrote in the New York Times, “would spur the Iranian public to rally around the flag and buck up a wobbling, wheezing theocracy — and an Israeli strike would do so in spades.” This isn’t novel logic. History is full of unpopular regimes that overcame internal legitimacy crises by focusing domestic discontent around an external foe. The same prospect of diversionary conflict drove the unstable Argentine junta to invade the Falkland Islands in 1982, though the threat of domestic unrest and prospect of regime instability is nowhere near as severe in today’s Iran than early-1980s Argentina. But importantly, the US appears to not grasp the implications of this perceived vulnerability: at the exact moment when Iranian conservatives seem more concerned about their domestic position than any time since the 1980s the United States doing everything it can to help the regime credibly present it as an implacable external enemy.

This doesn’t imply the Iranian regime faces any real prospect of collapse. Nader’s characterization of the regime as wobbling and wheezing is overblown, and American hopes the Iranian government will conveniently collapse are chimerical. But unqualified American hostility that empowers its adversaries is simply bad US foreign policy. “What Iran’s leaders would like more than anything,” Matthew Duss recently argued, “is another Dick Cheney or John Bolton, someone willing to play the villainous role that Iran’s anti-American propaganda narrative requires.” For Iranian political figures benefiting from the America-as-aggressor narrative, the positive (for them) implications of a US strike is a powerful incentive to avoid a diplomatic settlement.

This is why the “stick” argument Clawson embraces is so misguided. Clawson closes his piece by warning Iran that it should either “accept a generous offer to resolve the nuclear impasse or be prepared for the consequences.” But the same internal division Clawson highlights makes these “consequences” an entirely uncompelling threat! Given that the status quo favors the Iranians — the decision to escalate the crisis rests on the Americans and Israelis — relying on threats to coerce Iranian compliance over diplomacy isn’t likely to succeed.

But part of why these arguments persist is that, barring a unexpected breakthrough, diplomacy doesn’t appear to be workable. This impasse can be partially attributed to Iranian disfunction, but internal politics arguably constrains American diplomacy as much as it does Iran’s. The Obama administration’s Iran policy is limited by a domestic political arena that is at once too united and too divisive. The American foreign policy establishment’s reflexive hostility towards Iran makes it difficult to imagine the US proposing a feasible diplomatic solution, and partisan politics works to prevent the administration from moderating its demands.

Foreign policymakers inhabit a broader establishment that constrains their actions. These constraints are significant, and the specifics of American agenda-setting within divided government allow US hawks to constrain politically acceptable diplomatic options to their own preferences to a greater extent than their dovish peers. Most voters don’t care about foreign policy and embrace exceptionalist rhetoric that legitimize interventionist policies and makes threat inflation politically valuable. Just as IRI internal divisions allows hardliners’ preferences to limit both diplomacy and the compellence value of American sticks, in America the spectrum of credible diplomatic offers is benchmarked around the most hawkish members of the US foreign policy establishment. While this is no reason to discount the very valid reasons for opposing the Iranian regime — its barbaric human rights record is the most obvious — it is important to recognize that institutionalized hostility towards Iran within the American governing establishment significantly constrains P5+1 diplomacy.

The constraints these attitudes place on policymakers is obvious. After all, much of the Republican hostility to Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel is based on his view that a destructive war would represent a fundamental failure of foreign policy; a complete truism to dispassionate observers. Worse, when Jennifer Rubin claims Iran — home to a population a quarter of America’s, bereft of international allies, and armed by a decrepit military — is “our greatest national security threat” she is voicing a mainstream Republican talking point, not a fringe position. Commentators may persuasively argue that the dangers of nuclear proliferation are hugely overblown, but their arguments makes little practical difference because the political constraints built into the modern American foreign policy establishment marginalize challenges to nuclear alarmism.

Clawson contrasts Iranian divisiveness by noting that American bills targeting Iran “typically enjoy stunning levels of support,” but discounts the possibility that this too is a barrier to successful diplomacy. If American threats do not appear sufficient to compel Iran — and they do not — successful diplomacy must involve some degree of mutual compromise. But again, it’s unclear if American policymakers possess the domestic political capital to accept a potentially mutually satisfactory deal. While “sanctions relief” is reportedly on the table in the next round of talks, Republicans are sure to view dialing back sanctions in exchange for anything less than complete Iranian capitulation as another example of Obama’s “unserious” attitude towards national security.

These domestic political constraints aren’t limited to setting the boundaries of plausible diplomatic options. It’s worth remembering that American attitudes have already blocked potentially workable solutions. As related by Trita Parsi in his history of the Obama administration’s first term diplomacy with Iran, the potentially mutually-agreeable Iran-Brazil-Turkey-led Tehran Declaration was derailed in part by US domestic political pressures. “The impression, right or wrong,” Parsi quotes an Obama administration official as saying, “that was created was that we could not take yes for an answer”; an example of constrained diplomacy if there every was one.

Compromise is an integral part of diplomacy. Unfortunately, it’s possible diplomatic constraints on both sides of the negotiating table make that necessary mutual trade a nonstarter.

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