Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif prior to a press conference in Geneva, Switzerland

Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif prior to a press conference in Geneva, Switzerland Jason Reed/AP

Why Additional Iran Sanctions Will Not Work

Piling on sanctions won’t bend Iran, especially without strong diplomatic engagement – which has more benefits than you realize. By Tara Maller

In Congress, Israel and Saudi Arabia, those who insist Iran face additional sanctions and zero enrichment of nuclear material miss three realities associated with the use of economic sanctions.

First, rarely does the cost of sanctions alone make regimes capitulate to political demands. Second, strong and genuine diplomacy makes economic sanctions effective in modifying regime behavior. Third, strong diplomacy and a potential deal with Iran already yields important benefits, even if the deal is imperfect or ends up failing in the longer term.

While states that are politically fragile and economically weak may sometimes be easier to coerce through sanctions, they also may present unique challenges. Additional antagonistic actions towards the Iranians, at this point, will raise expectations for future conflict and are likely to make them even less likely to concede to any U.S. demands in negotiations.

“Over the past five years this regime has made it pretty clear what it is willing to do to stay in power. That trumps any ratcheting up of the sanctions,” Tufts University professor Daniel Drezner wrote recently. Drezner argues there is a “sanctions paradox” that is particularly salient to Iran --  that states targeted with sanctions are often primed for failure. They already have higher expectations for a future conflict and are therefore more concerned about material and reputational losses. As a result, he said, “the target (of sanctions) will be concerned about any concessions in the present undercutting its bargaining position in future interactions.”

So, why should we opt for more diplomacy now? What does diplomacy bring us that simply increasing more sanctions do not? I looked at more than 100 episodes in which the U.S. imposed sanctions on other countries. Diplomatic engagement makes sanctions more effective, whereas disengagement has the reverse effect. When the U.S. closes its embassy in a targeted country, for instance, the probability that sanctions will fail increases from 42 percent to 73 percent. Diplomatic engagement, on the other hand, produces better intelligence on the targeted country and enhances communication channels. It improves the ability to convey demands, target the correct entities, monitor the impact of sanctions on the ground and calibrate policies over time. Diplomacy also provides a window into the regime’s decision-making processes, motives and vulnerabilities. It helps clarify the nature of the demands on a sanctioned country and resolve ambiguity. In fact, a 2011 study of almost 900 sanctions episodes over three decades found that specific demands had a success rate of 53 percent, whereas only 18 percent of ambiguous demands were met. These findings suggest that strong parallel diplomatic efforts, like the ones that will take place this week, have the ability to attain desired outcomes on the heels of strong sanctions that were unable to alone modify regime behavior.

(Read more: Only Diplomacy, Not Force, Will Prevent Nuclear-Armed Iran)

Critics of diplomatic negotiations with Iran tend to present a mix of arguments. One, that the deal will be imperfect and will grant the Iranians sanctions relief while they maintain enrichment capabilities even if their program is temporarily frozen; two, that since economic sanctions helped get Iran to the table, we should continue to ramp up sanctions throughout the diplomatic process; and 3) that Iran cannot be trusted to carry through its side of the deal.

Any deal reached this week is a first step in what is bound to be a lengthy and ongoing negotiation process. Ideally, a comprehensive agreement amenable to both sides with all U.S. demands met by the Iranians and no enrichment might be the preferred U.S. outcome. Unfortunately, pragmatic solutions sometimes need to trump idealistic ones in the shorter-term when dealing with complex foreign policy issues. In an ideal world, dramatic political change would occur overnight, but that is rarely the case, even in our own country let alone with a country we haven’t spoken to in over 30 years. With regard to holding out for a “perfect deal,” Brookings’ Ken Pollack recently wrote, “Is that possible? Sure. And if it happened, it would indeed be a better outcome. But it is highly unlikely.” We cannot let the desire for perfect solutions undermine incremental change in the right direction. In hot conflicts, political negotiations often require ceasefires before peace settlements. A deal this week would represent a show of good will and mild concessions by both sides, so that trust can be built for future negotiations and agreements. It also allows both sides to test each other to see if each side can uphold its end of the bargain.

On the second point, economic sanctions did help get the Iranians to the negotiating table. However, it does not logically follow that more sanctions will get a desired outcome. In fact, it is quite likely that an increase in economic sanctions would create substantial Iranian blowback, derail the talks completely and undermine the potential for any deal. Adding more sanctions sends the message that we will not accept an imperfect deal. And if one prefers a diplomatic solution aimed at strongly monitoring the Iranian program -- ultimately ensuring that they do not have the ability to build nuclear weapons -- while at the same time improving relations, then the diplomatic avenue underway is the only way.

(Related: How the Senate Is Complicating Negotiations With Iran)

On the third point of trust, this is where I believe opponents of an imperfect diplomatic deal have the strongest case. Diplomatic overtures, positive rhetoric and words at the negotiating table are not the same thing as actions. Regimes may act with the best intentions and still end up unable to fulfill their end of various deals. They may also intentionally lie and mislead the international community to attain their desired ends. I firmly agree with the skeptics that we need to approach diplomatic negotiations with guarded and cautious optimism. Even if we struck a perfect deal tomorrow, trust would still remain a huge issue. A deal does not mean that the U.S. or Iran will have the ability or the intention to carry out its side of the arrangement. In fact, the Iranians may be fearful that differing opinions in the U.S. could undermine any deal that is reached, just as American skeptics have every reason not to trust the Iranians.

Having said that, there is no way to test whether or not the Iranians are able and willing to fulfill their end of a diplomatic bargain right now without putting the bargain to the test, and making sure that there are strong inspection and verification mechanisms in place. If the Iranians cheat on a deal endorsed by the international community, they will undoubtedly face even harsher multilateral sanctions. If the Iranians deceive the United States about their intentions, we will have significantly more information about the very programs we aim to destroy which could prove beneficial for future sanctions efforts or any strategy based on military action.

Diplomacy is not a tool of weakness, it is a tool of strength. In the best case scenarios, diplomacy works to attain peaceful and diplomatic solutions. However, it is worth remembering that diplomatic engagement yields benefits, strengthens punitive measures like sanctions and garners support for even stronger punitive policies should diplomatic partners prove to be untrustworthy.

Tara Maller is a research fellow in the National Security Studies Program at the New America Foundation