Monday, November 30, 2009

Iran Totally Freaks

Today, Iran announced plans to build 10 more nuclear plants in response to impending sanctions from the IAEA. Here's a quick list of reasons this was a bad move on Iran's part.

1) Iran is already being isolated by the international community. Striking from a point of weakness is usually not the best for either international stability or the self interest of the weak state. Threatening to further defy the IAEA only makes Iran's problem worse.

2) Iran doesn't have the capability to build 10 new plants in the 2 month deadline it set for itself (see article). One of the major components of successful deterrence, any Intro to IR student knows, is capability. Iran had to put its money where its mouth was. It seems like it may have put its foot there instead.

3) This knee-jerk reaction demonstrates to the international community that Iran is nervous, meaning it takes the threat of sanctions seriously. Policy debates here in Washington have often focused on what carrots and sticks the West actually has on this issue. Iran's empty threat shows that sanctions are likely to alter Iran's behavior. In other words: we found a stick.

4) Big changes at the end of a tedious power-balancing process are very dangerous. In the Middle East especially, they tend to predicate armed conflict. Recall Nasser's nationalizing the Suez Canal or Hizbullah capturing two Israeli soldiers.

You'll note in both of these cases, Israel was the party to respond with military force. This situation is no different. Israel has a very fine red line, and once it crosses it military action happens, regardless of international pressure. Making statements about quickly and vastly expanding your nuclear program is a sure-fire way to find your state on the wrong side of that red line. In taking such drastic action, Iran dramatically raised the stakes for an armed confrontation with Israel.

[I should qualify by saying that because the US urged Israel to give sanctions a shot, and they seem to be working, Israel is ultimately not likely to use this development as a justification to attack Iran. But Iran almost certainly did not consider its point in its value calculus because its threat was a brink statement not aimed at Israel specifically.]

The ultimate outcome of Iran's nuclear program still remains to be seen. Sanctions are an effective threat but they also must be leveraged effectively. But today's event illustrates that the U.S. and the West have some hope of being able to resolve the issue non-militarily, which will be uplifting in the wake of President Obama's speech on Afghanistan tomorrow night. Don't forget to tune in.

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