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When Coercion Backfires: The Limits of Coercive Diplomacy in Iran

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Coercive diplomacy is a deceivingly attractive strategy. If it can be made to work, it has the potential of achieving foreign policy objectives with considerably fewer costs. But when adopted in unconducive circumstances, the strategy has the potential to backfire and make peaceful resolution of conflicts more difficult. Since 2002, when the full scope of Iran’s nuclear program and ambitions were revealed to the public, the United States has primarily relied on coercive diplomacy to force Iran to accept limitations and oversight that go beyond the NPT and Iran’s safeguards agreement. This dissertation assesses how Iran’s nuclear policy and program has been affected by US and UNSC sanctions. It argues that not only has coercive diplomacy failed to persuade Iran to accept binding selective constraints on its fuel cycle activities, but it has also triggered a series of reactions that have strengthened Iran’s determination to advance, enhance, and expand its nuclear fuel cycle program. The findings of this dissertation corroborate the conclusions of most other scholars that have studied coercive diplomacy. Indeed, the recurrent failure of coercive diplomacy is rooted in the strategy’s neglect of the reality that national-level decisions are the resultant of the pulling and hauling of various forces within the target state and that in dealing with objectionable policies of states, one must seek to weaken the forces that promote and strengthen those that oppose the objectionable policy. In the case of Iran, sanctions have done the opposite. They have intensified Iranian distrust of the US and the post-war international order and have consequently augmented the forces in Iran that promote and have weakened those that oppose Iran’s nuclear fuel cycle program. Taking the factors that drive and shape Iran’s nuclear policy, this dissertation argues that the proliferation risks of Iran’s nuclear program could  be  resolved  more  quickly,  reliably, and effectively through arrangements that are based on mutually acknowledged rights and equitable principles than through arrangements based on coercion.

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