Stephen Walt : On Iran, try backscratching, not blackmail

The only question is whether the Obama administration can come up with a strategy that will convince Iran to remain on this side of the nuclear threshold and that will eventually open the door to a more positive relationship with that country. More than anything else, it will require tossing aside the confrontational approach that has been a consistent failure for more than a decade.



by Stephen M Walt



If someone threatened to punish you unless you did something you didn’t want to do, how would you respond? Unless the threatened punishment was really horrible you’d refuse, because giving into threats encourages the threatener to make more demands. But what if someone offered to pay you to do something you didn’t want to do? If the price were right you’d agree, because that act of cooperation on your part sends a very different message. Instead of showing that you can be intimidated over and over, it simply lets people know that you’re willing to cooperate if you are adequately compensated.

This simple logic has thus far escaped most of the people involved with U.S. policy towards Iran. Today, the conventional wisdom is that the only way to elicit cooperation from Iran is to keep making more and more potent threats, what Vice-President Joe Biden recently called “diplomacy backed by pressure.” Even wise practitioners of diplomacy like my colleague Nicholas Burns maintain that the U.S. and its allies must combine engagement with sanctions and more credible threats to use force, even though the United States and its allies have been threatening Iran for over a decade without success.

Joe Biden at the Munich Security Conference


As my opening paragraph suggests, this approach ignores some important scholarly work on how states can most easily elicit cooperation. Way back in the 1970s, MIT political scientist Kenneth Oye identified a crucial distinction between blackmail and what he called “backscratching” and showed why the latter approach is more likely to elicit cooperation.  States (and people) tend to resist a blackmailer, because once you pay them off the first time, they can keep making more and more demands. And in international politics, giving in to one state’s threats might convey weakness and invite demands by others. By contrast, states (and people) routinely engage in acts of “backscratching,” where each adjusts its behavior to give the other something that it wants in exchange for getting something that it wants. Backscratching — which is the essence of trade agreements, commercial transactions, and many other types of cooperation — establishes a valuable precedent: it shows that if you’ll do something for me, then I’ll do something for you. 

Not surprisingly, this is precisely what Iran’s government has been trying to tell us. Their bottom line for years has been that they were not going to negotiate with a gun to their heads. Or as Supreme Leader Khameini said in rejecting the most recent proposals for direct talks:

“The ball, in fact, is in your court. Does it make sense to offer negotiations while issuing threats and putting pressure? You are holding a gun against Iran saying you want to talk. The Iranian nation will not be frightened by the threats.”

Such statements are normally interpreted as just another sign of Iranian intransigence, but as just discussed, there is a sound strategic basis for Iran’s position. It is, in fact, precisely the position we would take if somebody were threatening us in the same way.

Threat of biting sanctions

The other problem with the Western approach, of course, is that threatening Iran reinforces their interest in having a latent nuclear weapons capability, and might eventually convince them that they need to get an actual bomb. Therefore, if our goal is to keep Iran as far away from the nuclear threshold as possible, imposing ever-harsher sanctions, constantly reiterating that “all options are on the table,” and warning darkly of war should diplomacy fail is not a smart way to proceed.

And it’s worked really, really well thus far, hasn’t it?

It is also worth noting that the closest the US and Iran have come to deal was the aborted attempt to arrange a fuel swap of enriched uranium for the Tehran research reactor in 2009. The proposed deal nearly succeeded because it was a backscratching arrangement that didn’t require Iran to capitulate to threats. (And by the way, the Turkish and Brazilian officials who helped mediate the arrangement blame its failure mostly on the United States, not Iran).

So why do so many smart people keep embracing an approach to Iran that is internally contradictory and has consistently failed for more than a decade? I’m not entirely sure, but I suspect it has a lot to do with maintaining credibility inside Washington. Because Iran has been demonized for so long, and absurdly cast as the Greatest National Security Threat we face, it has become largely impossible for anyone to speak openly of a different approach without becoming marginalized. Instead, you have to sound tough and hawkish even if you are in favor of negotiations, because that’s the only way to be taken seriously in the funhouse world of official Washington (see under: the Armed Services Committee hearings on Chuck Hagel).

Peter Jenkins was a British career diplomat for 33 years.

Finally, nothing I’ve written above should be interpreted as evidence of sympathy for Iran’s current government. The Islamic Republic has done some pretty objectionable things at home and abroad, but then again, so have plenty of countries that we routinely think of as friends and allies. And it’s not as though the United States is innocent of wrongdoing, as plenty of Iraqis, Pakistanis, Nicaraguans, Guatemalans, and others would be quick to tell us. My concern is simply with figuring out how to achieve a diplomatic outcome that would secure our primary objectives and avoid another pointless war in the Middle East.

It remains to be seen whether Obama will break out of the stale consensus that has hamstrung our approach to Iran thus far. For evidence that more sensible views can be found, see UK diplomat Peter Jenkins’ views here and the informative exchange between former US diplomat Thomas Pickering and Iran’s UN Ambassador Mohammed Khazaee here. The only question is whether the Obama administration can come up with a strategy that will convince Iran to remain on this side of the nuclear threshold and that will eventually open the door to a more positive relationship with that country. More than anything else, it will require tossing aside the confrontational approach that has been a consistent failure for more than a decade.

Ed. note : Highlights: Overcoming a Legacy of Mistrust (MUST WATCH)

 Read the original article at : FP

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Affairs at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, where he served as Academic Dean from 2002 to 2006. He previously taught at Princeton University and the University of Chicago, where he was Master of the Social Science Collegiate Division and Deputy Dean of Social Sciences. He blogs at Foreign Policy.

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Posted by on February 25, 2013, With 0 Reads, Filed under Wars. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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4 Responses to "Stephen Walt : On Iran, try backscratching, not blackmail"

  1. rhys  February 25, 2013 at 11:08 pm

    I have always respected Stephen Walt. Although I didn’t pick up the now obvious discrepancy in his options for a relationship with Iran, he may have done this purposely to see if there were any other actions the US could take, other than pulling Israel’s teeth. On the other hand, he may be tired of it all.

    The danger is as we all know, is a ‘ false flag’ episode from Israel. They are such a devious bunch of miscreants, as is well known. Probably have a complete department designed for just such tasks. Let’s hope our people are awake to the possibility.

  2. rexw  February 25, 2013 at 9:45 pm

    It has always been difficult, one could almost say, impossible to question anything that comes from the pen of Stephen Walt, even though seldom seen on these pages.
    However, when he writes
    “So why do so many smart people keep embracing an approach to Iran that is internally contradictory and has consistently failed for more than a decade “…….

    ……one is forced to state that the answer to that question is so simple that it could be answered by any child who reads a newspaper, one that is that that is not owned by Zionists or listens to any broadcast that doesn’t emanate from Disney, Viacom and the rest of the Jewish owned media.

    The answer simply enough is AIPAC. I know Mr. Walt is familiar with this organization, in my opinion an anti-American fifth column which has been allowed to grow over forty years and now effectively controls both houses of government in the USA.

    Would you have believed that anyone, ever, could be in a position to say such a thing?

    Now that’s quite a statement. But….one sees Congress members whose sole task it is to bring in legislation to support the state of Israel. Nothing else. I ask you, is that counter-productive to the aims of the electorates they represent?

    But it is all they do.

    Until someone finds a way to remove that impediment to peace, cooperation between nations and mutual understanding, then people with good intentions like Stephen Walt may still be making such statements fifty years from now under the yoke of an ever increasing growth of Jewish migration to the (new) promised land, America.

    Don’t scoff. With just 2% of the population they have the USA by the vitals. The government, a timid Administration that can’t even get a Defence Secretary confirmed as they, the Neocons, the Media, Senate, Congress and hangers on by the thousands grovel at the feet of the Zionists, day in, day out, as they play power politics with a country that was once the most powerful country in the world, now disrespected, morally and financially bankrupt and led by the nose by this foreign state and then using its Security Council veto, 66 times, to allow this inhumane regime to totally ignore the votes of almost every other country in the world.

    And that’s democracy?.Can you believe it?

    And where it the US President off to next? Yes, you guessed it. Israel to make his regular pilgrimage, not to the so-called Holy Land, but to the Prime Minister of a Middle Eastern state with a history of 60 years of occupation of stolen lands, inhumanity, ethnic cleansing and apartheid.

    How can he even contemplate such a visit to a state like this?

    What then, I am forced to ask, has happened to people like Stephen Walt? He has written 1026 words today and not once mentioned the word Zionist, Jew or Israel. Not once.
    Now those are the three words that stop the USA having a mature understanding with a country like Iran, the pick of all the countries in the Middle East and one that could be a great force for good in the region, in the world, their civilization having a history of thousands of years, well before 1776.

    Mr. Walt, after decades of identifying foreign policy problems, blunders and unnecessary wars and writing at least four books, The Origins of Alliances (1987); Revolution and War (1996); Taming American Power (2005); The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, has probably opted for a more peaceful life in academia. Can we assume then that he has now tired of being honest and straightforward in his comments to the American people on the obvious ills of his country and has stopped calling a spade a spade, or in this case, calling a Zionist a threat to the country in which he lives and probably loves.

    Such a pity.

  3. come-and-take-it  February 25, 2013 at 9:12 pm

    The US difference with Iran is not nuclear, it’s financial. How long until Americans quit believing the propagandists in the government and look at the realities. Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Iran have all been about the Petro-dollar and central banks. When Iran decided to export oil in a currency other than dollars and refused to allow central banks into their country they signed their own death warrant. The puppets in the US government will not rest until there is a change to the financial situation. The nuclear issue is just an excuse and we all know it.

    When will Americans quit being stooges for the bankers? How long will we send our sons and daughters to be maimed and killed for bankers profits? How many more countries will we be allowed to loot for the IMF, WHO, UN, World bank and descendents of the Rothschilds? The scholars quoted above must be learned men, so why do they maintain this fiction? How much money is enough for the central banks? How many deaths are enough? Will it take a world war to stop them or can we stand up to their greed and expose their schemes in time? How many more children have to die? All Wars Are Bankers Wars.

  4. Debbie Menon  February 25, 2013 at 9:07 pm

    I think that Obama does, in fact, want a deal with Iran but, “change” in approach should be expected sometime around late summer or early fall. That is when direct negotiations between the US and Iran would make sense – it would be premature before that time.

    Both the US and the Iranian administrations are in the process of readjusting their internal political framework — new Cabinet posts in the US administration and the presidential elections in Iran – and this process will require some time to jell.

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