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Saul Alinsky on Iran

The mullahs must be presented with incentives so powerful that they are compelled to negotiate.

12:00 PM, Dec 16, 2009 • By JEFF BERGNER
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In response to multilateral condemnation of its nuclear program, Iran has announced its intent to expand massively its uranium enrichment facilities. Once again, the White House press spokesman has announced gravely that Iran has chosen to "isolate itself." Once again, the UN Security Council will consider a menu of ineffective economic sanctions. Far better for the president and the Secretary of State to consider the counsel of their erstwhile mentor, Saul Alinsky. In Rules for Radicals, Alinsky observes, "No one can negotiate without the power to compel negotiation."

This is the nub of the Obama administration's problem with Iran. In fact, it was the nub of the Bush administration's problem with Iran, and of the Clinton administration's before that. How are we to compel Iran to negotiate seriously over its nuclear program?

The Bush administration developed a comprehensive program of "carrots and sticks" to bring Iran to the negotiating table. Carrots included the offer for more normal diplomatic relations, to join the World Trade Organization, and other economic incentives. Sticks included economic sanctions against entities involved with Iran's nuclear program, export controls on nuclear-related materials, and travel and financial sanctions against officials working in Iran's nuclear program.

The problem was that none of these carrots or sticks---or all of them together---came close to what would compel Iran to negotiate. There was simply neither enough upside nor enough downside for Iran to consider giving up its nuclear program. Nor did the demand that Iran suspend its nuclear program as a pre-condition for negotiations help to achieve this end.

Enter the Obama administration. In March it announced a new and presumably "smart power" policy toward Iran. That policy was called, for people with short memories, a policy of carrots and sticks. There was of course nothing new here at all--except the six-month grace period Iran was offered to come to the negotiating table. What was new was the idea that between March and September the United States could somehow sweet talk Iran into negotiating by offering it "respect." This has taken many forms, including New Year's greetings, communications with Iran's leaders, and most pointedly the tepid response to the mullahs' crackdown against Iranian citizens protesting the blatant unfairness of Iran's elections.

This six-month period was arguably a waste of time. But we have tried this, and it is now fully apparent that Iran has no interest whatsoever to negotiate over its nuclear program. Why should it? Iran has much to gain from a demonstrated nuclear weapons capability. And whatever differences separate Iranians from their government, most Iranians support their nuclear program.

Unless the Obama administration intends to blink and to allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons--and this seems like a very real possibility--there is only one way to bring Iran to negotiate seriously over its nuclear program. That is to compel Iran to negotiate out of fear of a worse alternative.

This compulsion could take many forms. It could include a naval embargo against Iran; it could include other targeted military action; it could include an overt understanding with Israel; or it could include truly crippling economic sanctions (as opposed to those now in place or those likely to be adopted by a Security Council that includes Russia and China). Whether even targeted sanctions against, say, Iran's importation of refined gasoline would be enough remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: if the Obama administration is serious about preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons, Iran is going to have to pay a far higher price than it has to date. And this is going to have to occur with little or no help from Russia.

As presidential candidate and as president, Obama has said that it is "unacceptable" for Iran to possess nuclear weapons. To bring Iran to negotiate seriously, Iran must be presented with incentives so powerful that it is compelled to negotiate. Administration officials grasp these tactics when dealing with domestic policy opponents. Why can't they understand that they apply on the world stage as well? Let us turn again to Saul Alinsky, who explains the inescapable need to compel negotiations. "Anything otherwise," he says, "is wishful non-thinking. To attempt to operate on a good-will rather than on a power basis would be to attempt something that the world has not yet experienced."

Jeff Bergner is a former staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and former Assistant Secretary of State.