U.S. to Despots: Lose Your Weapons, Keep Your Job

When countries believe Washington really wants what it says it wants — disarmament — they’re likelier to give in.

Hassan Rouhani, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran addresses the audience during the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the United Nations in New York on September 24, 2013. 
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Sara Sorcher
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Sara Sorcher
Sept. 26, 2013, 4:10 p.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama called for mil­it­ary ac­tion in Syr­ia and then stood down when strong­man Bashar al-As­sad prom­ised to give up his chem­ic­al weapons. He did not use cruise mis­siles when As­sad crossed his “red line.” But this was not a sign of tooth­less­ness tele­graphed to Syr­ia’s pat­ron, Ir­an — an­oth­er state de­vel­op­ing weapons of mass de­struc­tion — as some Monday-morn­ing quar­ter­backs in­sist. Quite the op­pos­ite. Obama’s nar­row goal had al­ways been to re­move chem­ic­al weapons from the equa­tion. The real mes­sage sent by dip­lomacy with Syr­ia is that Wash­ing­ton is not secretly aim­ing for re­gime change. The move says to Tehran: Forgo your nuc­le­ar-weapon dreams and, while oth­er un­sa­vory be­ha­vi­or will be con­demned, you will be left alone.

“If we get the chem­ic­al-weapons deal in Syr­ia, and ac­know­ledge ta­citly [that] As­sad will re­main in power, that is a use­ful mod­el for Ir­an,” says Jon Wolf­sth­al, a former Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Coun­cil dir­ect­or for non­pro­lif­er­a­tion. Of course, the new Ir­a­ni­an pres­id­ent, Has­san Rouh­ani, was elec­ted with a man­date to solve his na­tion’s eco­nom­ic woes, which is an­oth­er im­petus for ne­go­ti­ation with the West. But Obama helped his case by sig­nal­ing that “they don’t need weapons of mass de­struc­tion and nuc­le­ar de­terrent. And by trad­ing it away, they might get the le­git­im­acy they crave,” says Wolf­sth­al, now deputy dir­ect­or of the James Mar­tin Cen­ter for Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Stud­ies.

This ap­proach in­volved dif­fi­cult policy trade-offs. The Syr­ia deal sparked cri­ti­cism from de­fense hawks who be­lieve Obama let As­sad es­cape mil­it­ary pun­ish­ment for his crimes. Sim­il­arly, a deal with Ir­an may mean ig­nor­ing past vi­ol­a­tions and hu­man-rights ab­uses. But the United States has of­ten inked deals with rogue na­tions, pri­or­it­iz­ing its na­tion­al se­cur­ity over pun­ish­ing bad be­ha­vi­or — with mostly pos­it­ive res­ults, es­pe­cially when coupled with eco­nom­ic pres­sure and the threat of force, both still on the table in Syr­ia and Ir­an.

In 2003, the U.S. in­vaded Ir­aq over its pur­por­ted pos­ses­sion of weapons of mass de­struc­tion. Sud­denly, Libya’s Muam­mar el-Qad­dafi wanted to re­join the in­ter­na­tion­al com­munity, ap­par­ently real­iz­ing his own ar­sen­al and clandes­tine nuc­le­ar pro­gram were not worth the po­ten­tial costs. “The U.S. will­ing­ness to ne­go­ti­ate sent the same sig­nal the Syr­ia deal did: ‘We will not try to over­throw your re­gime; we’re nar­row­ing our de­mands,’ ” says Daniel Drezn­er, a pro­fess­or at the Fletch­er School of Law and Dip­lomacy at Tufts Uni­versity. Qad­dafi was im­pli­citly al­lowed to con­tin­ue his re­press­ive dic­tat­or­ship, and the mod­el worked un­til he began slaughter­ing his own people dur­ing the Ar­ab Spring.

Wash­ing­ton turned on him, which could worry rogue na­tions look­ing for se­cur­ity by giv­ing up non­con­ven­tion­al ar­sen­als. But real­ist­ic­ally, Amer­ic­an poli­cy­makers aren’t ex­actly jones­ing to use mil­it­ary force in sup­port of hu­man­it­ari­an goals, es­pe­cially in high-stakes coun­tries such as Ir­an, North Korea, and Syr­ia. “Wash­ing­ton tends to hold its nose and deal with re­gimes that it finds dis­taste­ful if those re­gimes are will­ing to abide by agree­ments that neut­ral­ize their most threat­en­ing be­ha­vi­or,” says Charles Kupchan, a Geor­getown Uni­versity pro­fess­or and the au­thor of How En­emies Be­come Friends. War wear­i­ness at home also pushes a pres­id­ent to choose deals over prin­ciples.

My­an­mar is an­oth­er case in point. The mil­it­ary junta was work­ing to ac­quire nuc­le­ar and mis­sile tech­no­logy at the same time it was re­press­ing demo­cracy, present­ing the U.S. gov­ern­ment with a ser­i­ous pro­lif­er­a­tion con­cern, ac­cord­ing to Wolf­sth­al. So when the coun­try wanted its good stand­ing back, Wash­ing­ton traded fin­an­cial and dip­lo­mat­ic car­rots for dis­arm­a­ment and polit­ic­al re­form. My­an­mar signed the Ad­di­tion­al Pro­tocol, the gold stand­ard for nuc­le­ar in­spec­tions, after a short vis­it by Obama in 2012, and later the Com­pre­hens­ive Nuc­le­ar Test Ban Treaty. The U.S. could have been a stick­ler and pun­ished the junta for every il­li­cit activ­ity, but it com­prom­ised.

The same strategy can have be­ne­fi­cial res­ults with al­lies. Some sci­ent­ists in South Korea were dis­covered to be en­rich­ing urani­um in 2000 in vi­ol­a­tion of the In­ter­na­tion­al Atom­ic En­ergy Agency safe­guards sys­tem. Rather than seek­ing a U.N. Se­cur­ity Coun­cil res­ol­u­tion or con­demning the coun­try, Wash­ing­ton worked with Seoul to shut down the pro­gram. It did.

Mil­it­ary force can be more co­er­cive in get­ting ad­versar­ies to com­ply when it’s still just a threat. Des­pite Belt­way dilly­dal­ly­ing, Rus­sia and Syr­ia both ap­peared to be­lieve that Wash­ing­ton would strike be­fore agree­ing to com­prom­ise. Bomb­ing would not have stripped As­sad of his chem­ic­al weapons or even his abil­ity to use them. Sim­il­arly, it would not be easy for the U.S. to simply bomb Ir­an out of the nuke busi­ness without risk of re­tali­ation. Even a Syr­ia strike might have forced Ir­an (which also des­pises chem­ic­al weapons, dat­ing back to the Ir­an-Ir­aq war) to aban­don its re­cent out­reach to­ward the United States.

So, in the­ory, Tehran could privately de­tail its vi­ol­a­tions and work to cor­rect them if Wash­ing­ton takes force and sanc­tions off the table. Yes, that might prompt oth­er states to cheat on their non­pro­lif­er­a­tion com­mit­ments un­til they get caught. “But, in the end, if you put in front of the pres­id­ent of the United States a chance to end Ir­an’s nuc­le­ar-weapons am­bi­tions as long as he for­goes pun­ish­ment, he’s prob­ably go­ing to be in­ter­ested,” Wolf­sth­al says. And sure enough, in an in­ter­view with The Wash­ing­ton Post‘s Dav­id Ig­na­tius this week, Rouh­ani said he’s happy to “turn to oth­er is­sues” — just as soon as soon as “the nuc­le­ar file is settled.”

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