A Roadmap for Nuclear Negotiations with Iran
So what does all this China and USSR history say about the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the West?
The answer is below, and is the culmination of the previous three articles. First, we discussed the rift between Rouhani and Iranian hardliners in the IRGC and elsewhere. From there, we entertained the question of whether or not the hardliners in Iran will try a coup against Rouhani’s reconciliation efforts.
To better inform that discussion, we delved into two historical and economic case studies. Deng’s economic reforms in China produced no coup, but the Gorbachev-Yeltsin tag team in the Soviet Union inspired a coup and ultimately the collapse of the Soviet Union. From these case studies, we learned a strategic reality about trade flows with the United States: more trade with America equals lower likelihood of a successful hardline coup against reformers. Therefore, looking at the chart below, if Iran continues to normalize relations with the US without sanctions relief, the chances of a successful hardline coup will remain high.
What does this mean for sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program? The answer to that question cuts one of two ways, depending on how you define US national security interests. Framed this way, Iran’s nuclear program is just one of many issues impacting the continuation (or end) of the Iranian regime.
Yes or No, do you think that the existence of the Islamic Republic of Iran is a threat to US national security?
The Islamic Republic of Iran is an ideological and existential threat to the United States.
According to this belief, Iran is analogous to the Soviet Union and the Cold War mentality applies. Communism and Shari’a Law are both ideological threats to Democracy. Only regime change in Iran can produce a truly safe and stable Middle East. We must fight to defend Freedom, or else these infectious ideas will exploit our open, Western society and attack us from within. Furthermore, Rouhani is very much an insider in the Iranian regime, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. His successes are the regime’s successes. We cannot afford for the regime to succeed, so Rouhani must fail.
In this case, the data from the three foregoing articles suggests the following strategy.
Consider that everyday Iranians in 2009 took to the streets to protest Ahmadinejad’s fraudulent election. Imagine their outrage if the IRGC deposed Rouhani, the president that they actually voted for. My guess is that the overwhelmingly young Iranian population probably doesn’t have the appetite for a hardline coup, and that they would riot against it. But if the IRGC bets on the depressed economy—if they bet that Iranians are more frustrated with inflation than they are with an unrepresentative government (see: Retrospective Voter Theory section in the previous article)—then they might conclude “they [have] nothing to lose…[and decide] to go for a coup d’etat.”
Assuming all of this, and again assuming that the continuation of the Islamic Republic of Iran is a threat to US national security, America would do well to demand political and nuclear concessions from Rouhani while easing as few sanctions as possible, effectively letting Rouhani draw out the rope and tie his own noose. This emphasis on socio-political-nuclear reforms without economic prosperity would mirror Gorbachev’s efforts in the 1980s. Just as the KGB tried a coup in the USSR, so too would the IRGC lead a coup in Iran. But, the young Iranian population will reject it and wage a counter-coup. By demanding concessions without giving sanctions relief, America can indirectly support regime change in Iran.
But what if the IRGC crushes the counter-coup, like they did in 2009? America will be left with a new regime that is even more hostile, just like Robespierre’s Reign of Terror ushered in a reinvigorated hardline approach to the French Revolution.
The Islamic Republic of Iran is neither an ideological nor an existential threat to the United States.
Democracy and Liberty are not at stake here. China proves that hardline ideology can soften. And the Soviet Union’s collapse proves that free markets and Democracy are stronger than closed systems. Even if the Iranian regime is threatening today—and it certainly is for Israel—we can use the soft power of economics to slowly draw the venom out of the Islamic Republic. And just as Gorbachev never intended for the USSR to dissolve, so too does Khamenei want to ensure the survival of the Islamic Republic. But Yeltsin had other ideas, and after he sided with the Russian people against the coup plotters, he could roll the ball of reform far beyond what Gorbachev ever wanted. Perhaps Rouhani is Iran’s Yeltsin. And even if he isn’t, the point is that once closed societies start to open, things quickly spiral out of control towards the West.
We can have faith, too, in the next generation of Iranians, who neither revolted in 1979, nor held hostage the American embassy, nor fought in the Iran-Iraq War. We can trust those for whom the rallying cry of “Death to America!” is just something cranky old mullahs yell when they want attention. The thriving film, music, poetry, fashion, etc. in Iran suggest that young Iranians want to coexist peacefully with the rest of the world and to share their Persian culture. Free market capitalism can bring them prosperity, so demonstrating our trust in the next generation by providing sanctions relief today can in one fell swoop render US-Iran mutual suspicion a thing of the past.
In this case, it would be incumbent upon policymakers and nuclear negotiators to carefully meet each demand made of Iran with the appropriate amount of sanctions relief, so as to improve Iran’s economy and shield Rouhani from an IRGC-led hardline coup.
Testifying before Congress in 1990 about US-USSR trade and its political implications, a senior Reagan Administration economist and national security strategist, Roger W. Robinson, Jr., outlined the requisite balancing act perfectly: “I support the prudent expansion of U.S. economic and financial relations with USSR and particularly with Eastern Europe, so long as such relations are properly managed. The overarching task of the Administration, the Congress, and indeed the Western Alliance, is to determine how best to advance the movements toward true democracy and free markets in these countries. For example, large-scale infusions of Western capital and technology into the USSR have served to retard, not catalyze, genuine systemic reform. Accordingly, a more cautious and disciplined approach to the channeling of Western assistance resources to the region is essential to maintaining the kind of “constructive pressure” which is working in favor of those seeking the fundamental, structural transformation of these societies.”
If US-Iran trade flows approach the level of US-USSR trade in 1992, $2.59 billion, then there might be a coup and it may or may not be successful: it’s a tricky, borderline case. If trade exceeds that, however, and is closer to the $7.1 billion range (US-China in 1985), than we can be quite confident that due to great economic growth, no hardliners will attempt a coup. Or, if they do, the people will defeat them because they will defend their increasing standard of living.
Data in the foregoing chart is from the US Census Bureau.
This article was edited with the help of the Online Editors of Sigma Iota Rho‘s Journal of International Relations, published by the University of Pennsylvania International Relations Department.
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 Roger W. Robinson’s full titles at the time of his testimony were: Senior Director for International Economic Affairs at the National Security Council & Executive Secretary of the Cabinet-level Senior Interdepartmental Group on International Economic Policy.
- Pushing the Hardliners Too Hard (jafriedel.wordpress.com)
- What China Teaches Us about Easing Iran Tensions (jafriedel.wordpress.com)
- Iran hopeful talks can lead to “nuclear roadmap” (worldbulletin.net)
- Zarif hopes for removal of sanctions (theiranproject.com)
- Israeli leader: Step up pressure on Iran (bigstory.ap.org)
- Iran’s FM says nuclear talks need new approach (dailystar.com.lb)
- Geneva II to focus on details of nuclear steps: Iran (theiranproject.com)
- Iran Says Nuclear Deal Is Possible (world.time.com)