Iran, Abu Musa, and the Foibles of Aggressive Foreign Policy

Belligerent foreign policies often end up having the opposite effects than were intended. Economic sanctions are a good example. Robert Pape, of Dying to Win fame, years ago examined 115 cases of economic sanctions over almost 80 years and found only 5 that could be considered a success (that is, the recipient nation changed policy in the desired direction of the imposer nation). Attacking a country economically often emboldens the regime meant to be weakened by sanctions.

With Iran, aggressive postures, economic sanctions, military encirclement, and rhetorical threats have led Tehran to a defensive policy of attaining nuclear capability without ever even moving to actually build a bomb, thus providing them with a credible deterrent while abiding by law and denying the West their pretext for war. Nuclear power turned into a point of national pride. The regime, again, ends up emboldened and rallied behind.

The New York Times features another good example of this today. In the news section today I wrote about how U.S.-backed Sunni dictatorships in the Gulf states have been taunting Iran lately over its apparently disputed claims over three tiny islands in the Straits of Hormuz. Instead of further isolating and destabilizing the leadership – which is at least in part the intention – the opposite has resulted.

For many Iranians, the dispute over Abu Musa, a four-square-mile spit of sand with about 2,000 inhabitants and surrounded by pristine blue waters, arouses strong nationalistic feelings at a time of general hopelessness over the devastating impact of a grinding economy, foreign sanctions and a feeling of unprecedented isolation. To that extent, it mirrors Iran’s nuclear program, which has also whipped up nationalistic emotions that Mr. Ahmadinejad has used to build support for the government.

“We Iranians continuously fight and disagree like a husband and wife during a nasty divorce,” Somaye Allahdad, 35, a Tehran homemaker who does not always agree with Mr. Ahmadinejad’s policies, said over a family lunch of traditional lamb kebab and sabzi, a sort of herbal stew. “But when someone tries to take away our child, we team up and face the threat.”

Oops. Oh, and here’s this to boot:

“The emirates are not acting independently in this matter,” said the analyst, Sadollah Zarei, 55, a columnist for the hard-line state Kayhan newspaper. “Bigger powers are behind this.”

He said the West was trying to raise the pressure on Tehran ahead of the second round of nuclear talks between Iran and world powers, scheduled for May 23.

“By driving up tensions in the Persian Gulf, the U.S. and their allies are trying to send a message to Iran: back down, or face pressure on other fronts,” Mr. Zarei said.