On January 16, 2016, governments in Europe and America ended the sanctions they had imposed on Iran (the U.S. since 1979, Europe since 2007 and increasingly since 2012) for reasons internal to themselves. Iran had not changed the behavior that had led to the imposition of sanctions—neither its nuclear program nor its leadership of the Shia side in the current round of the Sunni-Shia war. Americans and Europeans hoped that the end of sanctions would make the Islamic Republic’s international behavior more acceptable. But limits on Iran’s nuclear program consist of promises, qualified by reiteration that the program’s objective would not change, yet that no one need worry because it had never been military. Iran did not discuss its role in regional affairs. “Death to America” remained its officious position regards the United States.
Changes in the relationship between Iran on one side and Europe and America on the other are unilateral. Governments in Europe and America neither conditioned the end of sanctions on any changes in what the Islamic Republic is or does, nor really expected such changes. They were eager to gather Iran into the international community “as is,” and announced the removal of sanctions as the opening of a new and better relationship with Iran. Hence, questions about Iran’s efforts to achieve legitimacy vis-à-vis the governments of Europe and the U.S. neglect the fact that these governments have already given Iran all the privileges and immunities that it needs from them, and have done so in a way that well-nigh prevents them from taking them back.
Iran got what it wanted. The $100-$150 Billion U.S. release of frozen funds pays for shopping until benefits from renewed, unhindered access to the world economy flow. Companies from throughout Europe have rushed to provide life-giving transfusions into Iran’s energy and petrochemical industries, aircraft, and infrastructure battered by sanctions. They vie for investments and markets. Oil revenues are coming in. The economy is forecast to grow by 5%.
The intangible benefits that Iran sought and received are even more important. Because these flow from the European and American governments’ reticence to question their decision to gather Iran into the international community—and hence possibly thereby to impeach their own judgment—these benefits may well be understood in terms of open-ended grants of legitimacy to almost anything that Iran may do.
Fred Iklé, in “After Detection--What?” (Foreign Affairs January 1961), described the straightforward political mechanism by which this sort of thing happens. Although the mechanism is especially evident in arms control agreements, it pertains generally to whatever international controversial commitments that governments make on matters the outcome of which depends on the other party to the deal. Iklé shows that party A, having bet its competence and good judgment on its forecast on how party B would behave, then finds it in its own interest to give its own domestic constituency the impression that it had made a good decision. To do that, it tends to neglect or excuse any behavior on the part of B that contradicts that impression. The term “Stockholm syndrome” had not been invented in 1961. But it encapsulates the fact that controversial deals by democratic governments with dictatorships, and on which these governments bet their reputation, tend to make them the dictatorships’ obsequious political captives.
The U.S. government’s behavior in the aftermath of the “Iran deal” confirms this analysis, and leads us to ask how Iran might further exploit the presumption of legitimacy that the U.S. and European governments have granted to whatever international actions Iran might take.
As Europe, the U.S., and Iran finalized “the deal” in July 2015, the UN Security Council passed a resolution that defined limitations on Iran’s missile programs by which the U.S. and Europe expected Iran to be bound, although Iran had not agreed to be so bound. Iran then proceeded to test two versions of a new intermediate range missile, and to declare itself free of any commitments regarding missiles that it had made as part of “the deal.” The U.S. reaction was to worry loudly that Iran might “blow up the whole deal” and to sanction eleven Iranian companies involved in the missile program (no European government joined it), while preparing to implement its part of the deal. In January, as implementation came closer, the Iranian navy fired rockets within 1,500 yards of the carrier USS Harry S. Truman in the Persian Gulf. Then, it captured eleven U.S. sailors on armed craft transiting the Gulf and held them for twenty-four hours. With cameras rolling, it forced them to their knees, forced a female sailor to wear Islamic clothing, and a male to weep. The U.S. government thanked Iran for having returned them and refused to tell Congress who ordered the boats’ crews to surrender.
The U.S. government also turned over the $100-150 billion, plus some $1.7B more in conjunction with the return of three Americans who were supposed to have been part of the deal’s prisoner exchange provision.
As we try to imagine what behavior by Iran the U.S. government might bring itself to treat as illegitimate, we might recall an incident from 387 B.C. Rome being occupied by an army of Gauls, its citizens struck a deal for the Gauls’ departure. As the agreed amount of gold was being weighed, they complained that the scales were rigged. The Gauls’ chief, Brennus, then showed how thoroughly Rome had given up the prerogative to decide what is and is not legitimate by throwing his sword onto the scales and crying “vae victis!” (woe to the vanquished!)