Several foreign policy commentators have criticized President Obama for not leveraging the US’s military muscles while negotiating the Iran deal. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, a man I find quite insightful even if I sometimes disagree with him, is one credible example (here and here). But would the threat of force really have changed the negotiating environment?
Usually, the answer is yes. The more powerful party can leverage the fact that the most disagreeable/most costly option of the weaker party is violence, arm twisting it into a more agreeable deal for the more powerful party. Violence might be so distasteful that the more powerful party can ride the threat of force all the way to landing its first preference.
In Iran’s case, I don’t think that this scenario is true, because, I think, Iran finds violence distasteful but not that distasteful. Iran’s preferences could be briefly summarized as follows:
- Maintain integrity as revolutionary, anti-Western state
- Sanction relief
And preference 1 can be further summarized in regards to the nuclear program:
- Keep full nuclear program
- Keep a lot of the nuclear program
- Get bombed
- Remove nuclear program
If sub-preferences 3 and 4 were reversed, then perhaps the threat of force would have made a difference. But, if my supposed ordering of Iran’s preferences are true, Iran would rather be bombed than remove their nuclear program entirely, even if that scuttles sanction relief. Why? Removing the nuclear program entirely would have been compromising Iran’s number one goal, i.e. maintain the integrity as a revolutionary, anti-Western state; getting bombed would have reinforced that integrity, albeit at a high cost. Getting bombed could have even supported further unofficial sanctions relief from other states, such China, Russia, or India. If the US had threatened to use force if Iran did not completely remove its nuclear program, Iran most likely would have said “if that’s how you want to play it, go right ahead.”
The threat of force only works as the ultimate trump card when it is the absolute last ordered preference of the weaker party. So to answer the question, no, the threat of force would not have changed the Iran deal.