The perverse incentives behind Democrats’ hardline position on Iran
The survival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is still in question more than a year after the Biden administration began negotiations to salvage it.
Despite the obvious and widely acknowledged failure of the “maximum pressure” campaign that started with Trump’s decision to renege on the agreement in May 2018, the politics of the debate over the nuclear deal are as poisonous as ever. On May 4, the Senate passed, by a 62-33 vote, Republican Sen. James Lankford’s motion to express opposition to U.S. reentry into the JCPOA unless the agreement contained several unrealistic provisions that everyone understands Iran will never accept.
So, some 16 Democrats voted in favor of a measure aimed at sabotaging the administration’s diplomacy. Even after the proven failure of Iran hawks’ preferred approach of killing the deal and imposing maximum pressure on Iran, the political calculation in Washington is that it is safer to side with discredited hardliners than it is to support diplomatic engagement.
The continued hawkish slant of the debate in Washington over the nuclear deal illustrates the perverse political incentives in the making of U.S. foreign policy. Those incentives encourage most politicians and policymakers to embrace policies that are objectively worse for the United States and the world. Until these incentives are changed through increased political organization and activism, reforming and restraining U.S. foreign policy will be extremely difficult.
Reneging on the JCPOA has been harmful to U.S. interests, and this is true whether one holds to a narrow or broad definition of those interests. It has exposed American forces in the Middle East to greater risk through repeated rocket and drone attacks, and it has brought the U.S. and Iran much closer to war on at least two occasions.
Breaking our commitments has undermined current and future U.S. diplomatic efforts, which makes our foreign policy weaker and less effective than it might otherwise be. Leaving the deal has even made regional clients less secure. By any honest account, Trump’s Iran policy failed on its own terms and Iran’s nuclear program is more advanced than it has ever been. Every other problem that Washington has with the Iranian government has worsened over the last four years at the same time.
Our government’s economic war has also inflicted indefensible collective punishment on the people of Iran after Tehran fully complied with the terms of the agreement for several years. Rejoining the agreement and ending the economic war would certainly not solve all problems in the U.S.-Iranian relationship, but it would resolve the nuclear issue, it would make everything else more manageable, and it would greatly reduce the likelihood of conflict between our governments.
Despite all this, there has been virtually no recognition in the Republican Party that Trump’s decision to renege on the agreement was the wrong thing to do. Sen. Rand Paul has been the only Republican in Congress to criticize the decision publicly. The leading advocates of “maximum pressure” sanctions simply deny that their policy has backfired, and they have faced no consequences for driving U.S. Iran policy into the ditch.
The undeniable failure of “maximum pressure” has not led to its overwhelming repudiation, but rather to its effective continuation under Biden. The same perverse incentives that encourage so many Democratic senators to vote with Republican hawks have also been leading the Biden administration to risk letting the nuclear deal collapse over a mostly symbolic concession. As Peter Beinart put it recently, “By its own admission, the Biden administration is risking the Iran nuclear deal for nothing.”
The architects of failed policies not only suffer no penalties, political or professional, for their failures, but the hawkish bias in all our debates also ensures that fence-sitting politicians will take the path of least resistance and endorse unreasonable demands designed to block or kill negotiations with other governments.
The 16 Democrats voting for the Lankford motion are good examples of this, since they are openly siding against the president of their own party and voting for a set of maximalist conditions that might as well have been written by Mike Pompeo. The incentives are similar among foreign policy professionals, who tend to gravitate toward conventional hawkish assumptions about the U.S. role in the world and how to handle disputes with other states.
Consider the reflexive U.S. use of economic sanctions as an example. There is a deeply ingrained aversion in Washington to offering sanctions relief even if doing so would secure the gains that the U.S. seeks, and there is an overall strong preference for imposing additional sanctions rather than acknowledging that existing sanctions pressure has failed or backfired.
If the other state does not yield quickly, it is politically safer to argue for more pressure than it is to propose reducing it. Because advocates of sanctions relief will often be accused of being “soft” on this or that government, most foreign policy professionals have strong incentives to favor the status quo or to endorse more hardline options.
Our foreign policy debates are so warped that backing cruel and indiscriminate sanctions is considered a professional asset and favoring sanctions relief and compromise is a liability. The failure of sanctions policies is no impediment to their survival, because it is riskier to advocate for lifting sanctions than it is to call for more.
There is always a sizable constituency in Washington lobbying for more coercion, and those advocating for engagement and compromise are typically in the minority if they exist at all. Breaking ranks is potentially much riskier for a person’s career than conforming, so it is always much easier to stick with the crowd. We can see this at work in the debate over the nuclear deal, but it is equally applicable to every thorny problem from Venezuela’s political crisis to North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
Almost everything in Washington is structured to make supporting diplomacy a dangerous risk, and the same structures reward throwing weapons or sanctions at a problem no matter how much worse they make the situation. Since the coercive policies have flopped again and again, this can’t be a case of people jumping on the bandwagon because of perceived success. It is easier for politicians and policymakers to perpetuate failed policies because changing them in any significant way could provoke criticism and backlash that they would rather avoid.
One way to change these incentives is to highlight the damage that U.S. coercive policies do to American interests and innocent people in the targeted countries. As long as sanctions are perceived as proof of “toughness” against an abusive government, it will be politically advantageous for politicians and policymakers to support them. If that perception can be changed so that sanctions are widely recognized first and foremost as an indiscriminate attack on ordinary people, that should make support for economic warfare much less appealing.
Sanctions are the default response in Washington because they are politically cheap to endorse, so it will be necessary to raise the political price until it becomes riskier to back them than it is to oppose them.