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'The Right' to Question Iran

Interviewee: Joseph S. Nye Jr., Sultan of Oman Professor of International Relations, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
Interviewer: Greg Bruno, Staff Writer, CFR.org
September 30, 2009

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As the United States and world powers prepare to sit down with their Iranian counterparts on October 1, much attention will be on what concessions, if any, Iran is willing to make on its nuclear program. Joseph S. Nye Jr., who pioneered the theory of soft power, says while he doesn't expect any major breakthroughs from the talks, Washington nonetheless has a responsibility to push Iran to come clean. "If [the Iranians] develop nuclear weapons, there's likely to be a chain of proliferation in the Middle East. This may make the prospect of nuclear weapons being used go up by a significant probability," Nye says. "We have a right, as do their neighbors, to try to persuade them to forego that." Nye says revelations of a secret uranium-enrichment plant near the holy city of Qom may strengthen Washington's hand in negotiations. But more than anything, Nye says, President Barack Obama's decision to engage Iran has shown other regional actors that U.S. foreign policy is increasingly multilateral.

On Thursday, U.S. diplomats will meet with their Iranian counterparts for direct negotiations in Tehran's nuclear program. Should we be holding out much hope for a major breakthrough?

It's more likely to be incremental than a major breakthrough. But the interesting question will be whether it's possible to put a package to Iran that has large enough carrots as well as large enough sticks [to] make them decide that it would be worth delaying their plans to develop a nuclear weapon. We don't know the answer to that, and we'll try to find that out in the process of the talks.

Have you thought about what such a package might look like?

It's clear that on the carrots side you'd have to do something about more normal diplomatic relations with Iran. You might want to do something about unlocking Iran's [natural] gas reserves, which would be beneficial in terms of world energy markets. It has a two-way benefit: one for Iran and one for us. It would also include some relaxation of some of the sanctions on a graduated basis, until we see whether the Iranians comply with the things we're asking for. On the sticks side, it would imply the idea of tightening sanctions if the Iranians are not at all forthcoming. The types of sanctions that have been talked about include refined products such as gasoline, as well as financial sanctions to the extent that we can.

On the question of sanctions, there's much debate as to how effective they are. Generally speaking, how well do they move the dial?

We have the right to ask them to adhere to their legal agreements, the right to ask them to think through the implications and costs they're imposing as a result of their behavior, and the right to ask them to adjust their rhetoric, which right now is inflaming problems in the region.

The conventional wisdom, which is partly correct and partly wrong, is that sanctions don't work. There's been a careful study of this by [Gary Clyde] Hufbauer, [Jeffrey J.] Schott, and [Kimberly Ann] Elliott, which concludes they work about one-third of the time. More to the point, sanctions have to be posed as a question: compared to what? Sometimes they are the only instrument that is readily available. Putting it another way, the question should not be if they are effective, but if they are cost-effective. You have to pose it comparatively. It might be that a military invasion would be effective, but it might not be cost-effective. There could be a higher level of cost than you want to pay. Sanctions may, in fact, not be fully effective but might come at a much lower level of cost. Most of the discussion of sanctions has used a double standard: They've assumed a relatively effective and cost-free military comparison. The proper assessment is to ask about the cost-effectiveness in comparison to other policy instruments.

How important in talks like these is it to have the perceived upper hand going in? And in the specific case of Iran, is there a risk that bullying by the West might simply prompt Iran to be less likely to cooperate?

It's possible that the Iranians, seeing the Americans gaining leverage with the announcement of the Qom plant at Pittsburgh, may decide that they will create obfuscation because they see their bargaining situation as weakened. It's also possible that if they make a decision, they may delay in their effort to move toward nuclear weapons. I don't think anything will be quick, but they're going to have to decide whether the cost and benefit to them of going ahead on their current path is worth it. What we're trying to do with a package of bigger carrots and bigger sticks is to affect that cost-benefit assessment.

Your assessment of Washington's hand right now--strong or not so much?

I'd say it's better than it was two weeks ago, and it's better than it was a year ago. Obama's policy of engagement has helped him make the record that the United States is willing to engage. That was [seen as suspect] by not only Iranians but by other countries in the past. By beginning a process as he has, he's made a record with other countries--third parties whose help we'll need if we do have to impose sanctions.

What about the question of legitimacy? In the case of post-election Iran, many have argued this is not the time to engage because of a perceived lack of legitimacy.

If we only engaged with states that we regard as fully legitimate, we would limit our diplomatic options quite dramatically. After all, in the Cold War we engaged in arms-control agreements with the Soviet Union while not accepting their legitimacy because we believed that it was in our interest. At the same time that we engaged in arms-control negotiations with the Soviet Union, we were also critical of the Soviet human rights policy. It is possible to do both.

You've argued that one of the principle threats to U.S. supremacy is unilateralism. To effectively target non-state actors, deal with climate change, or even address financial issues, interconnectedness and networking is essential. How is the United States doing in that regard?

Unilateralism and multilateralism is a spectrum. No government is completely unilateral and no government is completely multilateral. But you can argue that the Obama administration has moved the dial in a more multilateral direction. It's also interesting to note that within the administration [of former president George W. Bush] there was a considerable change from the first term to the second term of moving the dial from unilateralism to multilateralism. Obama has moved it a bit further. But if you look at the larger question of how the United States achieves its objectives in the world that we face today--what I call the global information age--it is very important to have the cooperation of others. Both President Obama and Secretary of State [Hillary] Clinton have made this clear. If you look at Secretary Clinton's speech to [CFR] in July, she explicitly said that we can't achieve a number of these objectives acting alone.

You mention the global information age. The Afghanistan-Pakistan theater is a great example of the challenge. As Richard Holbrooke says, we're being out communicated by people with FM radios and connections to the Internet.

The conventional approach to international power was that whoever had the larger army wins. In the information age, it's who has the more effective narrative that wins.

The conventional approach to international power was that whoever had the larger army wins. In the information age, it's who has the more effective narrative that wins. We've not always been good at getting our narrative across to the right audiences. We sometimes think a story that sounds good in our ears will necessarily sound good in the ears of others. In fact, it doesn't. Rhetoric that's great for an American audience may in fact be not good for another audience. For example, I was speaking with a president of a Muslim country, and he said, "The problem with your war on terrorism and freedom agenda is that it sounded to Muslims like a war on Islam, so what you intended in your narrative and what we heard was not the same." We have to be a lot more careful of understanding our audiences and having to communicate with them, rather than simply putting forward stories that are appealing to domestic politics at home but may be counterproductive in terms of the foreign audiences we're seeking to win over.

How, specifically, might we do that?

We've begun to do that. President Obama's Cairo speech is a good example of communicating a concern and sensitivity to Muslim audiences, which you hadn't found in our previous communications. What was interesting about these communications at a presidential level was they showed a considerable awareness of what was in the minds of the target audiences. Very often we have not been as attentive to the minds of the target audiences as to what plays well in American domestic politics. It's a two-audience problem in communications: You have to look at how things are communicated at home and abroad simultaneously.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has challenged the right of Washington to make demands on Tehran regarding its nuclear program? So let me pose that question to you: How does the United States justify its position on Iranian nuclear endeavors, when Iran, a signatory of the NPT, sees nuclear power as a sovereign right?

It's not a right to dictate; it is a right to require them to live up to what they've agreed to and also to think through the consequences that they're imposing and costs they're imposing on others. On legal grounds, the Iranians do have a right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy under the Nonproliferation Treaty, which we've both signed. President Obama has recognized that right. They do not have the right to move toward nuclear weapons. They do not have the right to keep facilities secret from the International Atomic Energy Agency. So in that sense, we have a right to hold them to their legal agreements. There's also another right and responsibility that we have, which is to ask them to think through the implications of their actions and the costs that they are imposing on others. For example, if they develop nuclear weapons, there's likely to be a chain of proliferation in the Middle East. This may make the prospect of nuclear weapons being used go up by a significant probability. We have a right, as do their neighbors, to try to persuade them to forego that. We also have a right to ask them to adjust and change their rhetoric.

The talk of driving Israel into the sea and of denying the right of Israel to exist is bound to make Israelis feel threatened and under attack. That increases the prospect of some sort of conflict in the region. We have the right to ask them to adhere to their legal agreements, the right to ask them to think through the implications and costs they're imposing as a result of their behavior, and the right to ask them to adjust their rhetoric, which right now is inflaming problems in the region.

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