Diplomatic Breakthroughs

10.02.135:45 AM ET

Pain Vs. Gain Explains Syria and Iran

Recent diplomatic efforts by Syria, Iran, and Russia all have a common and simple explanation says Aaron Miller. They are motivated by the prospects of pain and gain, just like the rest of us.

Head spinning from all the Middle East news of late? Wondering why President Obama is on the phone with Iran’s President Rouhani after decades of diplomatic silence between the two countries?  Looking for compelling explanations as to why folks are more focused on talking rather than shooting when it comes to Syria and Iran?

There's an easy answer—it’s all about pain vs. gain, the great motivators that often shape human behavior as well as that of nations and push them to make tough decisions.

Indeed, without these age old forces at work we’d still have the status quo. With them, at least there's a chance to change it. And that’s what’s going on with Iran and Syria right now and what’s motivating, not only Barack Obama, but also Vladimir Putin, Iran’s Hassan Rouhani and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. And here's why.

The Pain Vs. Gain Index

Procrastinating is inevitable in the human enterprise and in the behavior of nations, particularly when tough decisions are called for. They're rarely taken unless individuals and nations are sufficiently motivated. And that motivation is driven by disincentives and/or incentives; or somewhat less elegantly described pain and gain. There was no Arab-Israeli peace process to speak of until Anwar Sadat sought gain by waging war against Israel. That led to both Israelis and Egyptians suffering pain at one another’s hands, which in turn prompted Sadat to go to Jerusalem with an offer that Israel, his former adversary, couldn’t refuse. Nor was there much chance of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process until the pain of the first intifada combined with the prospective gains of the secret Oslo negotiations to motivate both Israelis and Palestinians to see a peaceful resolution as being in their best interests.  

Syria: Avoid US Military Action

A variation of the pain/gain dynamic is at work today too.

The twists and turns of U.S. policy on Syria notwithstanding, what has lead to the recent UN Security Council resolution on Syrian chemical weapons and the very real possibility that a good part of Assad’s stocks will indeed be put under international control is the pain that even a limited US military strike might cause and the gains of averting one—and not just in Assad’s case.

Of course Assad wanted to avoid a U.S. strike. He couldn’t be certain how limited it would be and with his own forces already pressed, there’s no telling what might have resulted.

But Assad was the least of it. Obama’s decision to threaten war and then seek Congressional authorization was driven by his own wariness of the military option and the perceived lack of public support for it. Indeed, it’s no exaggeration to say that the President feared his own option and saw it as a potentially slippery slope with no real end-state.

Putin too saw pain in a potential strike against his Syrian ally. But he also saw the potential of real gain as well. By inserting himself in the middle of the mix, Russia’s leader saw an opportunity to emerge as a forceful and positive actor on the international stage, spare the Syrians an attack with uncertain consequences, and push back against unilateral U.S. actions. By forcing the entire issue of Syria’s chemical weapons into the UN Security Council where the Russians have a veto, Putin now has even more leverage and control.

Iran: End Sanctions/Preserve Right to Enrich

Whether the Iranian charm offensive will lead to a deal on the nuclear issue, is unclear. But there’s no doubt that what’s motivating the current Iranian initiative—and the Americans and even the Israelis too—are the prospects of pain and gain.

Sanctions are hurting the Iranian economy. And while the mullahs and elites are pretty immune, the general public isn’t. This creates unhappiness among the average citizens and political pressures on the country’s leaders. What’s the point of pursuing a nuclear weapons capacity if it’s ruining the country’s economy? So, the mullahs want to be relieved from the pain of sanctions and able to gain something too: the international community’s recognition that Iran has the right to enrich uranium for peaceful use.

The Americans aren’t immune from the pressures of pain and gain. They know that Iran’s nuclear program is progressing to the point where Teheran will be able to break out and weaponize.  And that would almost certainly invite an Israeli attack. Then there’s the small matter of Barack Obama’s own commitment to stop Iran from acquiring a weapon. An Israeli strike would not only make the President look bad, as if he’d mismanaged the problem, it would also escalate the level of regional tension causing instability and increasing the chances of a blowback on the US economy from plunging financial markets and rising oil prices.  

Solving the Iranian nuclear problem would alleviate these concerns and also open up the possibility of a longer term modus vivendi, which might also pay dividends on the Syria and Israeli-Palestinian problems too. Indeed the gains of trying serious diplomacy outweigh the risks of the current drift toward confrontation. It’s not a sentimental calculation by any party, rather it’s a business deal driven by the commonest of motivators – the desire to profit without getting hurt.

Churchill once famously remarked that to jaw jaw is always better than to war war. If you’re looking for a common theme to explain the dynamic affecting the Syrian, Iranian and even the Israeli-Palestinian problem, that’s it. Nobody—even the Israelis—want a confrontation with Iran or another conflict in the Middle East. And everyone seems willing to go to considerable lengths to avoid one. That’s why the US didn’t attack Syria, that’s why the presidents of the US and Iran are exchanging phone calls, and that’s why Israelis and Palestinians are still talking despite the long odds against an accord.

The threat of war is in the air but so is the promise of credible diplomacy designed to avoid it. The prospects of risk and reward have forced the parties to try talking rather than shooting. Whether they succeed will depend on luck, the will and skill of leaders, and the balance of pain and gain.