Weak Carrots, Weak Sticks

Hats off to Hampton for live-blogging the CNAS Iran panel yesterday. Given how much trouble I have transcribing a sentence or two from a recording that I can go back and replay, I’m impressed. As for the panel itself, Dennis Ross makes a bunch of points that I’ve been underlining for a while, namely the dangers of regional proliferation that a nuclear Iran poses, and the fact that deterrence is an entirely unsatisfactory outcome to this impasse. I also really liked his formula of “weak carrots and weak sticks” to sum up our policy to date. For me, the strong carrots are pretty self-evidently a serious diplomatic engagement, keeping in mind the difficulties invoked by the panelists.

As for strong sticks, we don’t need to keep harping on the military option, because it’s inherently always on the table. And while Iran could cause us and our friends a not insignificant amount of pain and discomfort in the region, Admiral Fallon summed it up best in the infamous Esquire piece when he quite simply said, “We’d crush them.” To keep reminding them of that is counterproductive.

What’s needed are the kinds of strong sticks Ross mentions, e.g. a serious European commitment to (mutually) painful economic sanctions. I think that Nicolas Sarkozy has been positioning France as America’s European point man on Iran, both to increase France’s leverage, but also because he believes the threat is real. My hunch, though, even if it’s not universally shared, is that he’s also trying to gain the Bush administration’s confidence so as to influence it towards a diplomatic, as opposed to military, approach.

The danger of a serious EU-American sanctions regime that passes outside the UNSC process is that it could induce a reinforced effort — by Russia and China but also by traditional advocates of non-aligned sovereignty like India, and perhaps South Africa and Brazil — to not only resist efforts to isolate Iran, but to actively undermine them. In other words, it may be that isolation (as opposed to containment) is simply no longer a viable option in the globalized economy and the diffuse configuration of power represented by the Rising Powers.

Meanwhile, for a rundown of the CNAS Iraq panel, try Marc Lynch.