By Prem Anand Mishra

Limits of U.S. ‘coercive diplomacy': The case of Iran nuclear deal

June 8, 2022 - 17:9

The culture of coercive diplomacy as a national security strategy has been the hallmark of U.S. foreign policy as leverage to seek the desired outcome against its perceived enemies and adversaries.

Although the tradition of coercion has been central to the U.S. foreign policies from the Vietnam War to the recent Iranian nuclear deal, it has vast limitations and often with disastrous outcomes. The case of Iran explains the limitations of coercive diplomacy. Between 2015 and 2022, the start of the negotiation and re-negotiation of the historic Iranian nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has been suggestive of how coercive diplomacy works but failed to achieve any meaningful outcome. 

The Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from UN Security Council Resolution 2231 in 2018 under the garb of “maximum pressure” against Iran reflects the limitations of coercive diplomacy. Diplomacy is often argued as a non-coercive strategy to seek a reasonable solution to avoid any confrontation. However, the great powers have defied such a civilized understanding of the rule of diplomacy as a zero-sum game against the lesser powers.  

Iran has survived and created a sustainable strategy against U.S. policies and its coercive diplomacy.  Therefore, one argues that the idea of coercive diplomacy is as old as a rule-based international system. Coercive diplomacy can be defined as a forceful persuasion to achieve the desired objective through the threat of force or actual use of limited military action. The term, coined by Alexander George in 1971, exemplifies the nuance of diplomacy consisting of demand and a threat of punishment and explaining threats, persuasion, positive inducements, and accommodation and their integration into a crisis with an alternative to war. 

However, it differs from deterrence in the operational sense. The latter invokes threats to an adversary by initiating an undesired action compared to coercive diplomacy, wherein response to action already been taken. As a political-diplomatic strategy, more extraordinary powers have applied it as a bargaining tool against adversaries. The United States has been using this strategy militarily against Japan, Vietnam, Korea, and Arab states like Iraq and Libya. However, despite severe economic sanctions on Iran as a valuable instrument of coercive diplomacy, such measures have so far remained unsuccessful in obtaining its objectives, if not completely failed.

The case of the Iran nuclear deal

The Iran nuclear deal was a success of diplomacy bringing major powers (P5+1) and Iran to a negotiating table to reduce tensions and promote dialogue but equally manifesting the limits of coercive diplomacy on the issue, thereby making a compromise possible. Iran didn’t surrender or succumb to U.S.’s coercive diplomacy despite lack of consensus among (P5+1) over how to undo the damage done by the Trump administration’s reckless unilateral withdrawal from the deal. This was after all not a bilateral but achieved under United Nation Security Council Resolution 2231(2015), amidst serious diplomatic efforts to reach a comprehensive, long-term and proper solution to the Iran nuclear issue culminated in the JCPOA and concluded on 14 July 2015 by China, France, Germany, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, the United States, the High Representative of the European Union and the Islamic Republic of Iran. This was achieved after Iran fully complied with the demand for resolutions, including concerns shown by International Atomic Energy Agency.

The U.S. is paying $2 million every month for security of former secretary of state Pompeo and former special representative to Iran Brian Hook. The Iran case also disputes the success of such coercive means under the diplomatic mission mainly used by great powers on all seven significant attributes (as Alexander George argues) required for the success of coercive diplomacy, as one finds in the case of Libya and during Cuban Missile Crisis between the former Soviet Union and the U.S. The idea of clarity of objective, the strength of motivations, asymmetry of reason, sense of urgency, adequate domestic and international support (including unlike agencies), opponent's fear of unacceptable escalation, and lastly, the clarity on which ground for settlement can be achieved. The U.S. policies have been influenced by lobbies from its allies in the region: Israel and the Persian Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia. Iran's nuclear deal is a fine example of how coercive diplomacy can be unsuccessful if there is a lack of clarity of objective. The other significant problem that expresses the limitation is the nature of the Iranian state that carries ideas like civilizational superiority and the notion of martyrdom as a part of its positioning in responding to the U.S.’s policies towards her. 

Coercive diplomacy is a highly contextual strategy, but it does not account for the possibility that many variables will be largely irrelevant from case to case. It is difficult to implement and often difficult to return to the status quo. The Iranian nuclear program rose to prominence as Iran mastered the technology to enrich uranium in 2002. Sanctions have shown their limitations even though the Iranian economy has been under severe stress since 1979. 

And despite the episodic protests in Iran, Iran has survived and created a sustainable strategy against U.S. policies and its coercive diplomacy.  The maximum pressure (over 700 new sanctions and killing of Iran’s top general Qassem Soleimani) under the Trump administration too failed to achieve amidst the lack of clarity of objectives against Iran. U.S. congressional committee report highlighted that the U.S. is paying $2 million every month for security of the former U.S. secretary of state Pompeo and former special U.S. representative to Iran Brian Hook. This perceived threat from Iran also limits the U.S. coercive diplomacy. In the backdrop, Trump’s response to unilateral withdrawal had a business model in dealing with Arab clients, further culminating in the Abraham Accords. Nonetheless, Iran is more powerful in the region; its allies are everywhere, and it seems to have achieved the desired outcome of the U.S.’s unilateral withdrawal. 

Diplomacy as zero-sum game?

Former Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif under the Rouhani administration wrote in Foreign Affairs in 2014, “This normalization process must be based on mutual respect and mutual interest. It must address issues of legitimate concern to both sides”. This shows how U.S. policies have not met their desired outcomes and highlight the limitation on practicing coercive diplomacy if there is a lack of objectivity and fracture within. The military options are off the table despite rhetoric, the nuclear deal still under negotiation amidst all uncertainty and Iran is more powerful in the region than before. Iran didn’t abandon its nuclear program; it has managed to deal with rising China for over $400 billion deals and helped Russia develop its equipment under sanction. The limits of coercive diplomacy explain why the Iran nuclear deal has remained a chimera. Between theory and practice, U.S. foreign policies on Iran nuclear deal show considerable limitations to the notion of coercive diplomacy and suggest, therefore, why it needs to be de-legitimized to maintain a ruled-based international order. Diplomacy ought to be based on a positive-sum game rather than a zero-sum game. The case of Iran nuclear deal explains its merit. 

 * Prem Anand Mishra  is a Ph.D. from the Centre for West Asian Studies, JNU, New Delhi. He can be reached at