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Being Honest on Iran

Paul Pillar challenges advocates of increased sanctions to acknowledge their real position on Iran. He observes that their contention that their bill would help to extract more concessions from Iran is already being proven wrong:

And if that weren’t enough, counterparts to Kirk and Menendez in the Iranian legislature are providing further evidence of the destructive effect of what is transpiring on Capitol Hill, with the Iranian legislators’ bill calling for Iran to start enriching uranium to a level well beyond what it has ever done before if the United States imposes any new sanctions. This is direct confirmation of how threats and hardline obstinacy, especially at this juncture, beget threats and hardline obstinacy from the other side. The Iranian bill also provides a real-life opportunity for some role reversal. Does this threat emanating from the majlis make U.S. policy-makers more inclined to take a softer line and make more concessions? Of course not.

Iranian legislators take the Kirk-Menendez bill as evidence that the U.S. is negotiating in bad faith, and now American hawks can point to the reaction of Iranian legislators as “confirmation” that the Iranian government isn’t serious about negotiating a final agreement. It should be clear that hard-liners on both sides want to set up obstacles to make it impossible to reach a final agreement, and they are relying on one another’s posturing to justify what they are doing. This is a very instructive example of how the sabotage of one side’s hard-liners prompts hard-liners on the other side to commit their own attempted sabotage of negotiations. If their goal was to help diplomacy succeed, they would not be doing the things they are doing, but then that has been obvious for years. Considering the maximalist conditions that many hawks have set for what a “good deal” would include, they can’t possibly want the sort of compromise arrangement that any comprehensive agreement entails, and so of course they want the negotiations to collapse.

Hawks are typically uninterested in thinking very much about how their preferred policy looks to other governments, and they are usually offended when someone suggests that they look at an issue from the perspective of another government. Even though these hawks automatically interpret the emptiest rhetorical bluster as proof of implacable, unyielding hostility, they assume that hawks in other countries respond to constant threats and coercion a very different way. If the U.S. imposes sanctions and threatens to attack another country, the other government will normally respond defiantly and angrily just as we would if we were in their position. One would think that hawks would be the first to understand that the foreign government’s predictable response would be to dig in its heels and refuse to make concessions under duress, since that is a normal reaction to repeated expressions of hostility, but instead they assume that all other governments can be compelled to yield and engage in what hawks would inevitably call appeasement if our government did it. Despite the fact that they are regularly issuing threats, hawks have a remarkably poor grasp of how other states react to them.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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