By Azin Sahabi

Deciphering ‘maximum diplomacy’:  Machiavellianism in practice

February 1, 2021 - 10:40

When it comes to Trump’s approach to Iran, the phrase “maximum pressure” declared by Mike Pompeo at The Heritage Foundation, mostly comes to mind. On the other hand, the term “maximum diplomacy” has been used in some formal and informal comments by U.S and EU officials on diplomatic relations with Iran. But what is the origin of “maximum pressure” and what does “maximum diplomacy” imply?

Maximum pressure: Bargaining through violence 

The logic of “maximum pressure” goes back to “compellence” strategy, articulated by Thomas Schelling in 1996.

The essence of compellence strategy is bargaining through violence, involving active use of coercion to get an enemy to change or abandon its behavior by means of a carefully calibrated schedule of punishments. Each time the enemy fails to comply, the punishments must become more severe, ultimately advancing to the use of lethal force.

On the other hand, the “enemy” receives various signals that they could peace if they meet a list of demands. In Iran’s case, Pompeo’s infamous list of 12 demands is a typical example. Punishments range from economic strangulation (in Iran’s case, “crippling sanctions” and a blockade on Iranian oil exports) to some form of violence through the use of military force. In fact, compellence strategy leaves no room for diplomacy. But vis a vis “maximum pressure”, the term “maximum diplomacy” also exists.

EU’s maximum diplomacy towards JCPOA

In their remarks on the essence of the EU’s engagement in crisis, high- ranking EU officials have explicitly and implicitly pointed to maximum diplomacy towards the JCPOA.

For instance, following the Foreign Affairs Council’s event on December 11, 2019, former High Representative of the European Union Federica Mogherini declared: “The European Union exercises maximum diplomacy with everybody during crises. This is the feature of the European Union engagement worldwide and in the region.”

 The official added: “Efforts to de-escalate tensions are made increasingly difficult by Iran's latest actions that are inconsistent with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The Foreign Ministers of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom and the High Representative of the European Union are extremely concerned by the latest announcements that Iran is restarting uranium enrichment activities – confirmed by the IAEA latest reports - and urged Iran to reverse all measures inconsistent with the JCPOA.”

EU to “redouble efforts” to preserve JCPOA

Moreover, on the eve of President Joe Biden’s inauguration, the European Commission spokesperson Peter Stano announced Trump’s maximum pressure “fruitless” and declared: “The bloc will ‘redouble efforts’ to preserve the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and return all parties to it.”

His statement can imply maximum diplomacy requirements:  “We are working together to achieve a situation where all participants in all parties respect the obligations set out in this agreement, that's our goal,” Stano said, adding, “The Biden team must set aside the Trump administration’s fruitless ‘maximum pressure’ in favor of the mix of intelligence cooperation, diplomacy, financial and military tools that can effectively deter or disrupt subversive Iranian activity while incentivizing Tehran’s return to the nuclear negotiating table.”

Maximum diplomacy at 2019 UN General Assembly

In addition, Lyse Doucet, the BBC's chief international correspondent, on 4th of October 2019 comments on the 2019 UN General Assembly. She describes French President Emmanuel Macron's diplomatic efforts regarding Iranian-American talks as “mega-mediation”. Quoting a senior UK diplomat, the BBC commentator describes maximum diplomacy, as “this year's (2019) flurry of efforts to build confidence, and even move closer for a historic meeting between the U.S. and Iranian presidents. We need to find a way through the U.S.'s maximum pressure' and Iran's 'maximum resistance. There had to be ‘robust responses’ to Iranian misbehavior".

She further comments on the process of "maximum diplomacy and writes: “The procession of would-be peacemakers sweeping in and out of hotel suites in New York included leaders of France, Germany, Japan, Britain, Pakistan, Iraq, Oman and more.”

Maximum pressure in support of maximum diplomacy

It is worth mentioning that top U.S. think tanks, which play a pivotal role in crafting U.S foreign policy, have emphasized the necessity for the Biden administration to use “maximum pressure with maximum diplomacy” against Iran.  In fact, due to firm emphasis on the failure of Trump’s maximum pressure expressed by many experts of key think tanks, they have apparently turned to a hybrid strategy to achieve their goals.

For example, Dr. Kiron Skinner, a foreign policy and national security expert at The Heritage Foundation, underlined on Jan. 5, 2020, the need for the Trump administration to combine maximum diplomacy with maximum pressure following the U.S. drone strike in Baghdad last year that led to the martyrdom of Lieutenant General Qassem Soleimani.

Moreover, some hawkish figures such as critics of the Iran deal and advocates of ripping it off overtly describe Pompeo’s maximum pressure campaign as “a clear Plan B” to support maximum diplomacy through pursuing maximum pressure. Among them is Mark Dubowitz, the CEO of The Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). In a statement on May 21, 2018, he said: “Pompeo provided a clear Plan B: Intensify the Iranian regime’s ongoing liquidity and political crisis to force fundamental changes in its behavior across a range of malign activities with the promise of a big diplomatic deal if they do, in short: Maximum diplomacy backed by maximum pressure.”

Maximum diplomacy backed by maximum pressure is Machiavellianism in practice

It seems that maximum diplomacy backed by maximum pressure is in fact a replica of Machiavellianism. Niccolo Machiavelli, an Italian Renaissance diplomat, believed that politics have always been played with deception, treachery, and crime. In his most infamous book titled “The Prince”, Machiavelli proposed immoral behavior, such as the use of deceit and the murder of innocents, and encouraged politicians to engage in evil when it would be necessary for political expediency.

Despite some Western officials’ emphasis on “maximum diplomacy” in negotiations with Iran, a brief review of their comments as well as three decades of inhumane sanctions, lay bare the playbook of Machiavellianism. In fact, the core of their remarks in short is: Maximum diplomacy should be backed by maximum pressure

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