"It is imperative as a matter of fundamental principles of diplomacy of multilateral relations, and frankly of wielding the great power of potentially going to war, that you exhaust all the diplomatic possibilities before you ask young men and women to put their lives on the line." -John Kerry
When a group of student militants seized the American embassy in Iran during the Revolution of 1979, everyone knew that American-Iranian relations would never be the same. Iran's revolution, sparked in part by the actions of Iran's brutal (and American-backed) Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, resulted in the complete upending of the balance of power in the Middle East. Iran perceived itself as surrounded by new enemies, and its aggressive actions in the following years helped ensure that became true. Now, after decades of sanctions and isolation, Implementation Day has arrived in Iran. A critical part of the recent international agreement surrounding Iran's nuclear development program, Implementation Day saw the lifting of many (but not all) trade sanctions against Iran. Though controversial, this is part of a long strategy by the current administration to slowly bring about change in Iran. This week, we investigate the long-term strategy for American-Iranian relations.
First of all, what are these sanctions anyway? Basically, sanctions are large international agreements which tend to be directed towards specific nations. In the case of Iran, these agreements are designed to prevent Iran from having access to the oil trade, stop certain officials from engaging in international banking, and block Iranian access to American made aircraft for commercial use. Iran has also had substantial resources and assets frozen in international banks, meaning that Iran is likely to receive between $55 and $100 billion dollars in the coming months. Though not all sanctions have been lifted (and most American businesses still cannot conduct affairs with Iran), Iran is set to receive a substantial boost from this development. In all, Implementation Day means that Iran will effectively rejoin the international community as a participating member.
Implementation Day has been directly connected to the negotiations of Iran's nuclear development program. The major points of this have been reviewed several times on this blog, but what are the long term implications for the non-military strategy of preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon? Essentially, the United States is seeking to change Iran's behavior by opening up the country rather than keeping it closed off and isolated. The basic theory behind this is that as Iranians become more exposed to the outside world, they will want to take a greater part in it. As the nation and its people become more dependent (and connected with) the outside world, they will be less likely to accept their government pursuing policies which threaten this relationship. In short, either the Iranian government would have to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons entirely, or its people would eventually try to change their government.
Of course, this Liberal International Order (everyone trades with each other and holds hands) is somewhat idealistic. But this has worked to generally prevent large scale conflict and promote international cooperation for decades. Known as the Economic Peace Theory (or McDonald's Peace Theory if you are hungry enough), this idea states that countries with strong economic ties (and a McDonald's) very rarely go to war with each other. Countries can still have substantial disagreements, but economic partners simply have too much to lose to risk going to war with each other. In short, by opening Iran up to international markets and global influence, the West is looking to change Iranian behavior through persuasion and positive reinforcement (as opposed to the coercion of bombs and sanctions).
Will this strategy work? Right now it is too early in the process to tell. However, there are promising signs that Iran is looking to start a new chapter in its international relations. Iran has a very large youth population (nearly 60% are under the age of 30), and these people are often far less enamored with the establishment than previous generations have been. They hold a much more positive opinion of the United States and are typically less enthusiastic about Iran's radically religious government. Still, Iran's clerics and the Revolutionary Guard force hold a lot of power in government. Protests like the 2009 Green Revolution (which disputed the re-election of president Ahmadinejad) have been a sign in this favor of this direction, but it will take time (and the involvement of global influence) for substantial changes to occur.
Most people in Washington (except those very closely connected to Iran's regional enemies) want the same thing: a friendly and stable Iran, but they differ on the best approach to this. Some want to bring about change through coercive force (more sanctions, bombing, further isolation), but this strategy has produced few meaningful results in several decades (and does little to improve relations). We have seen the failure of this strategy in places like Iraq in 2003. Military strikes would only set Iran's nuclear tech development back a few years. It would also likely enrage the population and further convince Iran's leaders that the world is out to destroy them. In order to bring about permanent change, the nation (and its people) itself needs to reform. This only happens by demonstrating both the benefits of cooperation in the international system (sanctions relief, participation in the global economy) and the consequences of rebuking this system (isolation and sanctions). Participation in the international system is usually very alluring to both governments and the average citizen. Opening up Iranian markets in a responsible way is the best way to help reform the country in the long term.
TL;DR: Give Iran McDonald's, not bombs.