Iran and the Limits of Isolation

Whether or not the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran “backed” Iran’s nuclear program (the joint declaration adopted at the summit’s end simply “. . .reaffirmed the basic and inalienable right of all states, to develop research, production and use of atomic energy for peaceful purposes.”), the fact that the meeting took place in Tehran did send me back to this quote from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent interview with Brian Williams:

Well, the world — the doors rather of the larger world are not closed to us. This is a great and mighty country, a great nation with a great economy, a rich culture, thousands of years of history and civilization. And we have very good economic and cultural relations with countries around the world. . . For the continuation our lives and for progress, we do not need the services, if I can use the word, of a few countries.

Ahmadinejad dismissed the cost to Iran’s economy of continued UNSC and unilateral sanctions as “domestic matters,” and I think the distinction he makes is more than just semantic. It points out a flaw in the logic of isolation as a means of changing Iran’s behavior. To begin with, as the NAM conference demonstrates, isolation will never be entirely effective. There are simply too many factors (primarily oil and gas reserves, but also questions of sovereignty and regional realpolitik) that undermine it.

But perhaps more significantly, while Ahmadinejad himself might pay a domestic political price (Update: See yesterday’s WPR piece by Erica Alini, for instance) as a result of sanctions, so long as the Iranian leadership is convinced that concessions on their nuclear program will not change American policy (and sure enough, that’s exactly what the Ayatollah Khamenei just declared yesterday), sanctions alone are unlikely to impact Iran’s negotiating position. (By all indications, the same holds true for the two-week deadline to accept the “freeze for freeze” framework.)

There’s been tons of press speculation about the often conflicting signals being sent by both sides, but as is understandable, most of it has attempted to interpret Iranian signals through the lens of American objectives, ie. whether they will freeze uranium enrichment in return for diplomatic and commercial engagement. The Iranian position, on the other hand, has remained pretty consistent throughout: an unconditional diplomatic and commercial engagement, which by restoring mutual trust could pave the way for a mutually acceptable (but undefined) resolution to the nuclear standoff.

Implicit in most of the press speculation is that this consistently articulated position is simply a clever negotiating ploy designed to sweeten an eventual deal, or worse, a stalling tactic designed to buy Tehran the time it needs to achieve nuclear weapons capacity. We keep waiting for the Iranians to “come to their senses” and realize that it’s actually in their interest to accept the carrots we’re offering in order to avoid the sticks. But this is a country that’s already got plenty of carrots (136 billion barrels worth, to say nothing of the 26 trillion cubic meters of gas reserves). As for sticks, gasoline rationing and high inflation seem pretty manageable for a country that lost anywhere from 300,000 to one million lives during its war with Iraq.

In other words, sooner or later, we’re going to have to face the prospect that the Iranians actually mean what they’re saying, and what they’ve been saying for three years now. That shouldn’t be interpreted as an apology for the Iranian position. It certainly doesn’t make finding a resolution any easier. But it does point out the limits of our current approach’s ability to achieve our objectives.