Sticks, Carrots and Diplomacy: Preventing Military Confrontation with Iran

An analysis of the means the US should employ in its policy towards Iran's nuclear ambitions. A combination of sticks, carrots and diplomacy might serve Washington's aims better than sanctions and rhetorical brinksmanship.

The US government’s recent decision to impose a new set of unilateral sanctions against Iran, in many ways, signals yet another audacious push by the Bush administration to pressure and isolate Tehran over the country’s controversial nuclear programme.

Designed to inhibit the regime’s ability to develop and finance its missile and nuclear programmes, the new sanctions specifically target Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its elite Quds Forces, the Ministry of Defense, as well as three of the country’s largest banks – Bank Melli, Bank Mellat and Bank Saderat.

But what is particularly significant about this robust package of sanctions is that it also highlights an important crossroads at which the US administration has arrived in its current standoff with the Iranian regime. In particular, given the decidedly unilateral nature of these sanctions – the by-product of the UN Security Council’s inability to agree on a new round of sanctions on Iran in September – the US administration has reached perhaps its most critical juncture in its policy towards Iran. Ultimately, the key question that the US must ask itself now is the following: whether to continue employing sticks in the form of military threats, or to pursue a policy that draws upon a greater emphasis on the use of carrots, as well as the exercise of diplomacy?

Few can deny that the sanctions come at a time when the possibility of a military confrontation between the two countries appears both real and, perhaps, imminent. Developments in recent months are particularly worrying. The heightened level of rhetoric from various Western countries – suggesting the real possibility of military conflict as a means of resolving the current standoff – is becoming increasingly familiar in the discourse over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. In particular, given the nature of recent US military manoeuvres and the intensity of hard-line rhetoric stemming from the White House, the declaration made last month by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner should come as no surprise that the world should prepare for 'the worst', as he put it, over Iran’s nuclear programme.


Current US policy towards Iran is fundamentally premised on the notion of ‘escalation dominance’, that is, the ability of a country to control the pace of escalation in any given conflict against an adversary. In military terms, escalation dominance can be translated into the threatened use of force and/or retaliation by one country, as a means of persuading another country to behave in a certain way. In the context of the current row over Iran’s nuclear programme, it is widely apparent that the threat of US military strikes on Iranian targets remains Washington’s most important negotiating card, in that it provides the US with a strong ‘rhetorical lever’, as it were, for ratcheting-up pressure on the regime when it deems necessary.

However, as US influence in the region continues to decline as a result of the war in Iraq, the efficacy of this approach is being repeatedly called into question – on both diplomatic and military grounds. On the diplomatic front, US air strikes would undoubtedly alienate Washington from its NATO allies, as well as international players Russia and China, in particular. But most importantly, the danger exists that any military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities would, in fact, produce the reverse-effect: resulting in the significant awakening of nationalist sentiments across the country.

In this scenario, the only winners would be the hard-liners; and indeed, history would suggest just that. A case in point is with Saddam Hussein, whose decision to invade Iran in 1980 – thus triggering the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War – merely galvanised nationalist solidarity among Iranians who overwhelmingly rallied behind Iran’s leader in the face of foreign aggression.

Moreover, any military consideration of an air strike scenario would certainly paint an even bleaker picture. With US forces currently burdened in Iraq and Afghanistan, and political support for further military adventurism shaky, to say the least, the credibility of US air strikes would be tremendously difficult to uphold – although certainly not unimaginable. Consequently, the underlying assumptions for achieving so-called ‘escalation dominance’ would also be severely undermined, as the US would most certainly be stripped of its ability to persuade Tehran that it is in a position to sustain an Iranian retaliation. In this case, Iranian retaliation would likely assume an inherently ‘asymmetric’ character, from attacks on US economic interests in the Gulf through the closure of the strategic, but potentially vulnerable Strait of Hormuz, to military strikes against US and Israeli targets in the region through the activation of proxies such as various Shia militias in Iraq and Hizbullah in Lebanon.


Ultimately, pursuing military confrontation with Iran, particularly in the form of air strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities, would, in fact, cause more headaches than remedies. Thus, the application of sticks should merely constitute just one component within Washington’s Iran-strategy ‘toolbox’. To achieve greater success in dealing with Tehran, most importantly, the US must come to terms with the reality that Iran is not going to relinquish its perceived right to nuclear power anytime soon, and that sabre-rattling and military posturing in this current standoff may only prove counter-productive, unless supported by concrete efforts to introduce carrots, in the form of a comprehensive incentive package, along with an exercise of greater diplomacy with key US partners: the EU member-states and veto-wielding nations, Russia and China.

In terms of a comprehensive incentive package, the US will need to come to terms with the fact that, while the use of military threats plays an important hand in pressuring the Iranian regime to take US concerns seriously, such a strategy cannot conceivably succeed if the US is not prepared to offer Iran some form of ‘return’ or quid pro quo in exchange for some degree of concessions over its nuclear ambitions. In this sense, one would be highly unreasonable to believe that Tehran would ever acquiesce to Washington’s demand without some form of benefit or incentive in return from the Americans. In practice, such a move would most probably entail Washington offering Tehran a number of incentives such as ‘security-guarantees’, coupled with an endorsement for the country to enrich uranium, but under full transparency and under maximum supervision by the IAEA.

Granted, as audacious as such a proposal may appear, the reality is that the current 'no enrichment' position of the Bush administration has proved wholly ineffectual on all accounts, as the policy has essentially presented Tehran with two choices – one of which President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is simply unable politically to accept given his regime’s initial stance on the issue, and its perceived ‘right’ to nuclear power.


In addition to activating a policy of ‘carrots’, perhaps the greatest challenge of all will be in making diplomacy work, therefore, inevitably challenging the US’ ability to mobilize international partners such as Russia, China and EU member states under a common policy umbrella towards Iran. In order to galvanise the needed international pressure against Iran, the diplomatic path must begin with the EU where agreement among its member countries over how to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions has been divisive right from the start. But most importantly, the efficacy of Washington’s policy towards Iran – particularly its newly imposed unilateral sanctions – will undoubtedly hinge on support coming from Moscow and Beijing since the sanctions may, in fact, make the Iranian regime ever more dependent on trade with Russia and China. Preventing this from occurring will ultimately require that the US demonstrate to its allies that it, in fact, has more ‘tricks’ up its sleeves than simply kinetic power.

The road that lies ahead for the US is nothing short of a Herculean undertaking. Yet there is cause for some optimism in the short-term. Specifically, despite all that is to be gained economically by Russia and China in its nuclear dealings with Iran – not to mention the strategic benefits afforded by a weakened US presence in the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region – Russia, in particular, has demonstrated their own reservations about a nuclear Iran at its doorsteps. In his recent visit to Tehran in October, Russian President Vladimir Putin made it clear to the Supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that Russia ultimately supports the UN Security Council’s demands that Iran halt its uranium enrichment programme. Whether this move reflects Moscow’s own security interests is a matter of speculation.

Nevertheless, what is needed in order to kick-start this ‘diplomatic surge’ is ultimately a parallel surge in constructive rhetoric – if not negotiations – between the US and Iran over key issues that address the quid pro quos that Tehran can be expected to receive in return for some degree of cooperation over its nuclear programme. By all accounts, Iranian nuclear ambitions most likely cannot be deterred solely on the basis of rhetorical brinkmanship. Thus, in order to attract the needed international consensus on its policies towards Iran, the US administration must come to terms with the reality that it must provide, not just Iran with some motivations to engage, but also its international partners: the EU, Russia and China. Doing otherwise risks a further descent down the path towards military confrontation.

Given the enormous strategic and, indeed civilian, consequences of any military conflict over Iran’s nuclear programme, a policy which sensibly combines the use of sticks, carrots and diplomacy is, therefore, one that the Bush administration simply cannot afford to overlook – nearly one year in advance of the next US elections in November 2008.

Christopher Pang
Head, Middle East and North Africa Programme


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