Alexis Tsipras had a choice. As the leader of the fledgling Syriza government in Greece, he could have told the European Union to stuff its austerity plan. He could have taken the risk that the EU would offer a better deal to keep Greece in the Eurozone. Or, failing that, he could have navigated his country into the uncharted waters of economic independence.
But he chose to “follow the rules” by accepting the EU plan. Greece is getting its financial bailout, Greeks are tightening their belts, and the Eurozone will survive more-or-less intact. Tsipras learned what happens when you challenge the rules of an elite club. Once in a while, the club changes the rules. Most of the time, the club issues an ultimatum: suck it up or move on.
Hassan Rouhani had a choice. As the leader of a new reformist government in Iran, he could have told the international community to keep its nose out of his country’s business. He could have kept adding to Iran’s civilian nuclear program, arguing all the time that it was not in violation of any international agreements. He could have tried to chip away at the international sanctions regime by concluding economic agreements with willing countries.
But he chose to negotiate with the permanent five members of the UN Security Council — plus Germany — and bring Iran into full compliance with International Atomic Energy Agency requirements. By “following the rules” in this way, Rouhani is hoping that the windfall that comes from the lifting of sanctions will provide enough capital to turn around the Iranian economy and boost the prospects of his political cohort.
In Hollywood movies and on TV, the rule breakers usually triumph. I can’t begin to count how many films and shows feature CIA operatives, FBI agents, and police officers that must defy the chain of command in order to do the right thing and collar the bad guys.
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But in the real world, breaking the rules usually comes with big penalties. Of course, it all depends on who sets the rules and who dares to defy them. Sometimes the outlaws face a lifetime behind bars. And sometimes they not only break the rules with impunity but win the proverbial jackpot as well.
The history of nuclear non-proliferation is checkered, to say the least. As soon as the United States ushered in the atomic age, the proliferation of scientific knowledge ensured that other countries, beginning with the Soviet Union, would barrel their way into the nuclear club. By the time the international community negotiated the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968, three other countries had qualified for membership: China, France, and the United Kingdom.
Although a few countries have given up their programs — Belarus, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, South Africa — the treaty has not served as a sufficient deterrent to other determined aspirants. Both India and Pakistan, locked in a sub-continental wrestling match, decided that the enemy was close at hand and the international community far away. They both endured global censure when they crossed the nuclear threshold, but they eventually found their way back into the good graces of the international community. They were too strategically important to keep semi-permanently in the time-out corner.
North Korea, sanctioned up the wazoo since the Korean War, didn’t think it had anything to lose by building a nuclear deterrent. It flirted with the United States and the other four parties in the Six Party Talks to get a good deal in exchange for freezing its nuclear program. It never got what it wanted — lifting of sanctions, normalization of diplomatic relations, or even some light-water nuclear reactors — so officially went nuclear in 2006.
Israel is not a declared nuclear power. But, like North Korea, it’s pledged to do just about anything to survive in a largely hostile region, maintaining its 100 or so nuclear devices as a trump card should its neighbors threaten its existence. Israel has always considered “playing by the rules” with skepticism, for it believes the rules are skewed against it. India felt the same way about the NPT and the way it locked in privileges for early adopters.
Iran faces some of the similar problems as other powers contemplating the nuclear option. It has hostile neighbors (Iraq, Israel, the Gulf States). It has incurred the wrath of key nuclear powers (particularly the United States). And it sees nuclear power as a signifier of status.
Moreover, Iran was well aware that not having a nuclear weapon could be seen as an invitation to invasion. Look what happened to Libya, which famously traded its nuclear program for a ticket back into the international community and then suffered an aerial assault from that same international community less than a decade later. Look what happened to Ukraine, which gave up its program after the collapse of the Soviet Union and two decades later watched Russia gobble up Crimea and support secessionists in the eastern part of the country. And would NATO have bombed Serbia in the 1990s if Slobodan Milosevic had, however improbably, acquired a nuclear deterrent?
So, given these push and pull factors, why did Iran decide to play by the rules?
The leadership in Tehran made a sensible calculation that it would benefit much more from playing by the rules than defying them. North Korea has served as a cautionary tale of what happens to the internationally isolated: They can take a great leap backward. In North Korea’s case, parts of the country jumped nearly back to the 19th century. Iran, by contrast, is a country on the verge of economic breakout. It has a strong middle class, a well-educated workforce, and a range of productive industries. With enough capital and enough global connections, Iran could not only dominate the region economically but become a significant global player as well.
In that context, adhering to the rules of the game was a no-brainer. By the same logic, it’s unlikely that Iran will cheat — unless it doesn’t get the benefits it’s been promised.
Most successful economies have outlaw pasts. Go back far enough and you’ll find that all the great powers — the United States, Great Britain, Germany — defied the conventional economic wisdom of their age in order to succeed.