During the past few weeks, the news has been dominated with stories about the sharp escalation in tensions between the US and Iran. This dates back to Iran’s announcement on May 8 that it would stop complying with parts of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and resume enriching uranium, which could be used in developing nuclear weapons, unless the European signatories to the agreement provide financial assistance. This was followed by oil tankers passing near the Straits of Hormuz on May 13 and June 13 being damaged by sabotage, with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton claiming that the tankers were attacked by Iran. Most recently, a US drone was shot down in international airspace by Iran on June 20th, leading President Trump to order military airstrikes before deciding to back down in favor of cyberattacks on Iranian computers instead. All of this has led many to wonder if the US may end up going to war with Iran (which is not helped by the fact that Bolton and Pompeo, the key foreign policy figures in the administration, are ardent anti-Iran hawks).
These tensions didn’t come out of nowhere, of course. Relations between the two states have been poor since the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the subsequent hostage crisis, which haven’t been helped by the Iranian government calling for the destruction of Israel and supporting terrorism in the Middle East and beyond. The US, meanwhile, withdrew from the JCPOA in May 2018 due to Trump having promised to do so during the 2016 presidential campaign after attacking it as “the worst deal ever” (while ignoring that all evidence suggests that Iran was complying with the agreement while being subject to the strictest nuclear safeguards and inspections in the world by the IAEA). This was only surprising in that it took so long to actually happen, since most Republican officials (and a fair number of Democrats) decried the deal as a failure for not restricting Iran’s non-nuclear proliferation activities as well – ignoring that there was no way President Hassan Rouhani or Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini would have ever agreed to that. At the same time, the administration also resumed the enforcement of sanctions against Iran and any foreign entities that did business with it – again, despite the fact that Iran was found to be in compliance with the agreement. In short, it’s completely unsurprising that the Iranian government has decided to resume uranium enrichment when agreeing to halt its proliferation efforts didn’t alleviate sanctions, making the whole situation a compellence failure by the US.
As a concept, compellence is fairly similar to deterrence: both rely on the idea of influencing someone else’s actions with the threat of punishment. Deterrence does so by having the person/group/government making the threat (the “sender”) warn the target that carrying out a certain action will lead to it being punished so badly that it would be better off not doing it at all. A rudimentary example of this would be with law enforcement: if you commit a crime, you’ll be sent to prison, and since you generally want to avoid going to prison (assuming you’re “rational,” which is a whole other issue), you’ll avoid committing crimes. The concept tends to be associated more with nuclear weapons, however, with the logic being “Don’t attack me, or I’ll nuke you” (generally something that governments want to avoid). Compellence differs in that it has the sender inflict the punishment until the target does what it’s told, and is all about forcing someone to do something they wouldn’t do otherwise. The logic somewhat resembles that of a mugging – “I’m not going to stop beating you until you give me your wallet,” so to speak. Geopolitically, this tends to occur with the use of sanctions (“I’ll keep crushing your economy until you stop trying to make nuclear weapons”) or even limited military strikes (“I’ll keep firing missiles at your bases and cities until you give me this chunk of land”).
While the Trump administration has proven itself to be very good at the punishment aspect of compellence, it’s done a terrible job for the whole “stop hurting the target once they do as they’re told part.” This makes their threats totally incredible (as “lacking credibility,” not “awesome”), which is something of a problem for coercion. After all, if you try deter someone with nuclear weapons and then don’t actually carry out your threat when you’re attacked (at least if the attack actually poses a serious threat), everyone’s going to think that it’s carte-blanche to attack you as well. Similarly, if you keep hurting a target after it does what you want, it’s not going to have an incentive to keep following your demands. Continuing to sanction Iran after it stopped enriching uranium is a perfect example of this kind of compellence failure. At that point, the Iranian government wouldn’t see any downsides to going back to nuclear weapons development, since it’s going to be sanctioned regardless – may as well have some nuclear weapons sitting around as a deterrent.
These actions make more sense if the US rationale is not just to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons, but to spark regime change or to justify a war for doing so. The issue with trying to sanction a country into poor enough economic conditions for there to be a revolution is that it doesn’t work: sanctions can never be costly enough for a government to willingly leave power, and repressive regimes will usually just focus their spending on boosting domestic security forces and entrenching their control of the economy. And even if they do cause enough misery for the government to be overthrown, the resulting collateral damage from sanctions mean that the new government would have no reason to be friendly towards the country that was hurting them in the first place.
Using the failure of sanctions as a pretense for going to war with Iran certainly makes sense, given Bolton’s role in the Trump administration: beyond his role in getting the US to invade Iraq in 2003, the man threatens war against other states so often that he would likely respond to a leaky kitchen sink by calling for airstrikes against local plumbers. But going to war with Iran would be a wholly different and much bloodier conflict, given that it has a better trained and much better equipped army than Saddam Hussein had at his disposal after over a decade of sanctions. There’s no guarantee that the US would be willing to suffer the potential losses from such a war, or even be able to succeed at regime change at all.
So far, war between the US and Iran doesn’t seem likely to break out soon. Given the tensions and increased mobilization, however, it would only take one side making a miscalculation about the other’s intentions for the situation to escalate to the point of disaster. All of this could be avoided if the Trump administration backs down from its maximalist positions – but again, top officials like Pompeo and Bolton appear devoted to forcing regime change in Iran, making this unlikely.