With sanctions and covert action apparently failing to significantly constrain Tehran's nuclear program, the coercive US approach - at first fully supported by Israel and recently also by the EU - now shifts toward the next stage: military action. The recent posturing of US and Iranian naval forces around the Strait of Hormuz and the accompanying rhetorical exchanges to either close or keep this vital chokepoint for the global oil supply open, is only the latest landmark of the slippery slope toward open escalation. Examining the dynamics and drivers underlying this conflict and the relative ineffectiveness of a military strike makes clear that a strategy of engagement is the only way forward.
To start with, the interaction between the US and Iran takes place in the absence of trust which feeds a vicious spiral of mutual suspicion and distrust. Accordingly, the cognitive frames of policy makers, that fundamentally shape the assumptions about intentions as well as the perceptions of behavior, and eventually drive policy choices on both sides are greatly determined by fear. Whilst this has held true for Iran ever since the overthrow of Mossadegh was orchestrated by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 1953, fear came to fully dominate the policy of the US and its allies only in the aftermath of 2002 when the clandestine research efforts by Iran into enrichment and conversion were discovered.
In theory, a fear-based policy not only reinforces zero-sum calculations of the actors involved but also creates the dilemma to show resolve in situations in which they would be better off with acquiescence. In practice, a fear-based policy has rendered the mastering of the full nuclear fuel-cycle, to which Iran is entitled as a signatory of the Non Proliferation Treaty, unacceptable as the weaponization of the nuclear program could then be easily achieved. At the same time, and in conjunction with the implicit threats of outside regime change in case of doing so, a fear-based policy has meanwhile increased the incentives for Tehran to develop such a nuclear breakout capability. As a result, overcoming this dilemma has become almost impossible because as a precondition for ending the standoff one side necessarily needs to give in to the other.
Giving in is closely related to loss and we know from political psychology that actors are more risk-acceptant in the domain of losses than in the domain of gains. A nuclear Iran would be a tremendous loss for US policy, to the same extent as the abandonment of the nuclear program would be for Iran. Therefore, the step that brings such fear-based policies to its logical end is a military strike. But considering its most likely consequences are destabilizing the entire region, alienating the Iranian public and further weakening moderate forces, while not diminishing the amassed knowledge about nuclear enrichment, it should have become clear at this point that a fear-based policy ultimately leads to a dead-end. What needs to be done instead is adding gains to the equation. In fact, this can only by done through a strategy of engagement for which detailed propositions and frameworks, with step-by-step implementation, already exist.
The window of opportunity for engaging Iran is still open, given the most recent threat assessment of the US intelligence community that found no evidence that Tehran has decided to build a nuclear weapon. This is also congruent with the November IAEA report that, despite its suspecting language, arrived at the same conclusion. Against this backdrop, it is time for the EU to reactivate its own Iran policy because it is European policy makers who are least driven by fear.
Sascha Lohmann is a recent graduate of Free University in Berlin.