Soft Balancing on Iran

A few days after the key findings of the Iran NIE were released Kevin Drum suggested that with the war hawks’ position so heavily damaged and the policy danger that they pose having been diminished, many, including some countries, might feel freed up to take a more hardline position now that they no longer have to tread between the Charybdis of Iran’s nuclear program and the Scylla of the Office of the Vice President (“Counterintuitive Thought for the Day on Iran,” Political Animal, Washington Monthly, 10 December 2007). He even speculated that that the continued progress of a U.N. sanctions resolution might confirm this theory (“Sanctions and the NIE, Political Animal, Washington Monthly, 10 December 2007).

But what would this mean, that countries slow-walk actions to constrain a potential Iranian nuclear program out of fear of becoming a party to a larger U.S. plan against Iran? It would mean that a group of countries have formed a tacit — or perhaps not so tacit — agreement to impede the United States. Wouldn’t one have to admit this as a sort of primitive soft balancing against the United States. I don’t think that the case is exactly strong here. This is probably no different than the sort of actions that one could point to probably dozens of instances during the Cold War where U.S. alliance partners felt the need to mitigate some particularly egregious U.S. policy position. States engaging in minor acts of diplomatic defiance is nothing new.

On the other hand, when you consider that there have been some more hard balancing-like actions (“A Caspian Balance?,” 23 October 2007), it seems like there is a context where this doesn’t look like diplomacy as usual. Perhaps there is a slowly building effort to constrain the U.S. in the Middle East.

It’s also disturbing that the U.S. is considered a threat to stability of such a scale that states find themselves having to stake out some middle ground between us and Iran.

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