December 9, 2009
Number 12/08 #03
Today’s Update features a number of pieces on the state of the negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program – with a special focus on the prospects of additional sanctions now that the end-of-year deadline for negotiating progress set by the US administration is looming.
First up, the Economist had an excellent summary of the details of where things stand in the negotiations – including the rejection by Iran of the enrichment deal offered, the secret Qom plant revelations, and Teheran’s latest open threats to build ten or more additional enrichment facilities. It also discusses some less publicised Iranian threats including to pull out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty altogether, or to start enriching uranium to higher levels themselves. The venerable magazine also canvasses the possibility of an Israeli or US military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, what this might entail, and the possible consequences. For this summary of what everyone should know about the realities of the Iranian nuclear crisis, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, Iran now says it wants to build 20, not 10, additional uranium enrichment facilities.
Next up Orde Kittrie, who is both a professor of law and a former US government arms control official, makes the case that strong sanctions are now needed to change Iran’s cost-benefit analysis and provide hope for a negotiated solution to the nuclear standoff. He reviews some past cases where sanctions have been successful, and debunks a number of arguments against such sanctions. He also points out that either a European trade embargo, or sanctions on petroleum imports – neither of which would necessarily require a UN Security Council resolution – might well be enough to do the job. For this complete essay, CLICK HERE. A differing view comes from Middle East expert Raymond Tanter, who questions whether sanctions can be effective.
Finally, American columnist Michael Gerson argues that while such sanctions might work and should be tried, they might not. He argues that the nature of the Iranian regime, which he says has become essentially a military dictatorship, makes it vulnerable to another kind of pressure – a threat of extensive external support for Iran’s opposition green movement. He argues that a threat to support the Iranian opposition should also be used to pressure the regime, as this is whom it most fears. For the rest of his argument, CLICK HERE. Seeming to emphasise his point, new large-scale opposition demonstrations occurred this week, despite the ferocity of the government crackdowns.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Emmanuele Ottolenghi reports on the plight of Iranian Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi, whose prize has now been seized by the regime, and urges US President Barack Obama to use his own prize to intervene on her behalf.
- A report on some less than hopeful outcomes of a sophisticated simulation game on the Iranian nuclear crisis.
- Iranian President Ahmadinejad says the West is conspiring to prevent the arrival of the hidden Imam, the Shi’ite messiah. Some comment on the apparently sincere messianism being displayed in this and other statements is here.
- A piece on the Islamic Republic’s declining prestige as a political model in the Arab world since the election in June.
- Iran scholar Abbas Milani decries and corrects the distorted view of the history of the American-Iranian relationship which is too often cited both inside and outside Iran.
- Israeli arms control specialist Dr. Efraim Asculai looks back on the tenure of outgoing International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohammed ElBaradei, and especially his handling of the Iran nuclear file.
- Allegations in the US that a supposedly independent charity devoted to promoting “Persian Studies” at universities was actually completely under the control of the Iranian government.
- Argentine prosecutors say Iran is building a terror network in South America.
- Some comments on the massive bomb attacks in Baghdad overnight from Iraqi blogger Iraqpundit and American security analyst Max Boot. It is worth noting that these attacks come after November saw the lowest number of civilian casualties from violence in Iraq since the invasion of 2003.
- Freelance Middle East journalist Michael Totten looks at the wider regional implications of the apparent breakdown of Dubai as a regional economic and social model.
- Some additional comment on US President Barack Obama’s Afghanistan speech from David Ignatius, Max Boot, Elliot Cohen and Rich Lowry. Plus, Dr. Walid Phares speculates on how the Taliban may react.
- For those who didn’t see it in yesterday’s Australian, British journalist Tom Gross had an interesting eyewitness account of the vast improvements in Palestinian life on the West Bank in recent months. Some more statistics backing this up are here.
The Economist, Dec 3rd 2009
From print edition
After years of fruitless diplomacy, Iran is on the threshold of becoming a nuclear power. The options are grim
A SECRET uranium-enrichment plant is discovered, built in a mountainside on a well-defended military compound outside the city of Qom. It is a clear breach of nuclear safeguards agreements and promises made when Iran signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Iran brazens it out, trying to bamboozle inspectors into believing there is nothing more. It defiantly declares its “nuclear rights” to this “civilian” effort with a purpose, it says, that is nothing more sinister than providing electricity to Iranians.
To diplomats from America, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China, it is a depressingly familiar tale. Iran’s belligerent shrug at the discovery of the Fordow plant—reported by inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN’s nuclear guardian, to be in an “advanced state of construction”, with everything but the centrifuges installed—is exactly the one played out after the unmasking of its other formerly secret enrichment plant, at Natanz, in 2002.
Russia and China, hitherto most reluctant to contemplate stiffer sanctions on Iran for its nuclear defiance, are now wondering what to do next. “We will not stand aside” if others agree on sanctions, said a senior Russian diplomat this week. Diplomats from the six are to meet in mid-December to start taking stock.
What has changed in the intervening seven years is far from reassuring. Iran is much further on with its enrichment plans. Natanz has some 8,000 centrifuge enrichment machines (out of a planned 54,000), though only about half are spinning with uranium gas. It has accumulated a stock of 5% enriched uranium which, if Iran breaks out and enriches it further to bomb-usable 90% (easy compared with achieving the first 5%), would be enough for a bomb, and will soon be enough for two. Inspectors, meanwhile, suspect that Iran may have other secret sites. They have plenty of evidence to suggest that Iran has done warhead development, besides other experiments whose purpose can only be to build a nuclear weapon, or enable one to be assembled at speed.
But Iran refuses to answer their questions, and now threatens to increase its enrichment effort tenfold. An exaggerated boast, perhaps: it appears to be running short of uranium ore, as well as high-strength steel for the planned expansion at Natanz. But it is moving ahead fast.
Some in Tehran are even hinting that the country could pull out of the NPT altogether. Being in or out “makes no difference”, said Ali Larijani, the speaker of parliament and a former nuclear negotiator. But he was immediately contradicted by the head of Iran’s atomic agency, who said that the only reason to pull out of the treaty would be to develop nuclear weapons, and that would be a “sin”. The very threat of it brings the world a step closer to the catastrophic choice that France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, laid out in 2007: an Iranian nuclear bomb, or the bombing of Iran.
The outstretched hand
This year, it was hoped, would be different. With a new American president ready to be conciliatory, diplomats had tried even harder to draw Iran into talks. When Iran recently announced that it needed 20% enriched uranium to replace the fuel rods in a research reactor that produces medical isotopes (and was built by America in Tehran in the 1960s, when times were better), a deal was proposed involving America, Russia, France and the IAEA. Most of Iran’s own low-enriched uranium (LEU), for which it has no practical civilian use because it has no working nuclear-power reactors that could burn it, would be taken out of the country, enriched in Russia, made into fuel rods in France and then returned to Iran, all under the auspices of the IAEA. Removing most of Iran’s uranium stock would create a breathing space, if only of a few months, for more talks.
This was the first step to seeing whether a broader deal could be struck. Under such an agreement, Iran would end the part of its nuclear work with military potential until confidence was restored. In return it would get various benefits, including improved political and trade ties, discussions about regional security and even co-operation on advanced civilian nuclear technologies.
Iran’s provocative president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, at first seemed tempted. He saw the deal as a means of legitimising Iran’s own enrichment programme. But it fell foul of Iran’s opaque and unstable politics, all the more volatile since Mr Ahmadinejad’s rigged re-election in June. The president found himself outflanked by both reformers and hardliners, all denouncing his readiness to export Iran’s hard-won enriched uranium. The deal collapsed. On December 2nd Mr Ahmadinejad announced that Iran would obtain 20% enriched uranium all by itself, by producing it inside the country.
The failure of the fuel deal and the revelations at Qom have particularly disappointed the outgoing head of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei. Mr ElBaradei points out that the Qom site is not only illegal, but also “reduces confidence” in Iran’s claim not to have other secret facilities. For Fordow raises new questions, including where the uranium for such a secret operation would come from. There are two possible answers. It could come through the diversion of stocks of low-enriched uranium from Natanz, which could then be quickly spun into the bomb-grade sort. Or another secret plant could prepare uranium hexafluoride (UF6), the compound that is spun and enriched as a gas in the centrifuges, from Iran’s uranium ore. This can be mined or imported without the inspectors knowing, because Iran has refused to give them the powers they need. Iran says Fordow was only an attempt to hedge its bets in case Natanz was destroyed. But it increases suspicions that Iran was seeking a break-out option.
The IAEA’s board voted 25-3—crucially, with the support of both Russia and China—to censure Iran for its latest safeguards breaches and to refer the matter, yet again, to the UN Security Council. Even before the Qom revelations, the six had agreed to give Iran until the end of the year before deciding what to do next. Perhaps it was always hopeless to think that Iran, with its long record of cheating and playing for time, was ever going to be serious about reaching a deal. The question is whether America’s year of attempted engagement will now make it easier to convince Russia, China and other sceptics of the need for stiffer sanctions.
Both Russia and China have already signed up for a string of limited UN-imposed sanctions on Iran. These have so far mostly targeted members of the Revolutionary Guard and its offshoots and the companies they control, which are thought to be involved in nuclear-related trade. But both countries have been careful to exempt the things they most value in their trade with Iran—items which, if included, would make Tehran take notice. EPA
Hide and seek in Qom
For Russia, that has included the sale of conventional weapons—although reports that it has refused to supply Iran with advanced S-300 air defences, despite an earlier agreement to do so, would seem to be born out by Iranian complaints. Since 1995 Russia has also been helping Iran to complete a nuclear-power reactor at Bushehr. America had at first opposed the project. It changed tack when Russia agreed not only to supply the necessary fuel rods, but also to take back the spent fuel. This project has since been cited as proof that outsiders are not trying to deprive Iran of civilian nuclear power. Yet there have been repeated delays, and the reactor will now not start up until March. With Iran in repeated violation of nuclear safeguards, a ban on nuclear trade looks attractive to some.
China, too, has big commercial interests in Iran, with investment contracts estimated at some $120 billion. Iran is already one of China’s biggest suppliers of oil. The government in Beijing will be loth to put those supplies at risk—though Saudi Arabia and some of the smaller Gulf states, quietly keen to keep up pressure on Iran, could help China find alternative supplies.
Some European countries still trade heavily with Iran, too, although many companies have started to draw back. Government-backed credits are harder to come by, and ties to Iranian banks have been cut. But this has mostly been done under pressure from America. Faced with the choice of continuing to deal with their Iranian counterparts, or retaining entry to the much more lucrative American financial markets, most banks have backed away. Yet in the Gulf itself, as well as in Asia, Iran has found circuitous routes to get the imports it needs, including petrol.
It is not just commercial interests that give Russia and China pause when it comes to devising tough new sanctions. Neither has much truck with sanctions anyway, since both have suffered from them in the past. Both resented America’s unilateral intervention in Iraq in 2003. And Russia has no particular wish to help America and Iran end their confrontation, since their difficult relations ever since the shah’s overthrow in 1979 have opened a door to Russian influence in the region.
Both Russia and China have insisted until now that there has been no hard evidence that Iran is doing anything wrong. Neither thinks Iran’s missiles are aimed at them. Instead Russia has been keen to maintain good relations with a potentially awkward neighbour that could stir up trouble, but mostly hasn’t, in Russia’s own unstable border regions.
Yet Iran’s own actions make this hands-off strategy increasingly untenable. The closer Iran seems to get to the nuclear ambition it claims not to have, the more nervous its other neighbours have become. Indeed, Arab states seem far more anxious about a Persian bomb than they have been for the past 40 years about Israel’s presumed nuclear arsenal. It was the threat of wider proliferation in the Middle East, and potentially beyond, as well as the risk that Israel could act alone if nothing was done to rein in Iran, that was cited recently by two senior American officials in Beijing to try to persuade China to shift on sanctions.
Time for a strike?
A bipartisan American report, by two ex-senators and a former air-force general, says the United States must now plan overtly for military action, if only to strengthen diplomacy. Charles Wald, the general, says the Iranians “frankly don’t believe that we would do anything against them”. America is trying to woo the Muslim world, draw down in Iraq and build up in Afghanistan. As Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of America’s joint chiefs of staff, said on November 4th: “The last thing in the world that I need right now is a third conflict—as we’re trying to work our way through these other two.”
Israel’s threats of military action might be more credible than America’s. In 1981 it bombed Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor, and in 2007 it bombed a suspected Syrian nuclear reactor under construction. As a result, Israel likes to argue, the world owes the Jewish state a huge debt of gratitude. (By the same token, perhaps Saddam should be thanked for bombing Iran’s reactor at Bushehr in the 1980s.) Last year Israel carried out a long-distance military air exercise over Greece that looked like a rehearsal for action in Iran. In June a missile-carrying Israeli submarine ostentatiously sailed through the Suez Canal. And recently Israel and America conducted large-scale missile-defence exercises to demonstrate their ability to fend off possible retaliation by Iran.
What could provoke military action, whether by America or by Israel? There are several possibilities. One might be an Iranian decision to expel nuclear inspectors or withdraw from the NPT, as North Korea did in 2003 before making and testing atomic bombs. Another cause might be the growth of Iran’s stockpile of LEU to the point where it has enough fissile material to break out of the NPT and test more than one bomb. Yet another factor might be the delivery of those Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missiles, which would make bombing much more difficult. Arguably the biggest trigger would be the conviction that diplomacy has reached an impasse.
Acquiring nuclear weapons requires three elements: fissile material (such as highly enriched uranium, HEU, or plutonium), a delivery system and a warhead. The enrichment plants at Natanz, Qom and perhaps elsewhere give Iran an early route to HEU. A planned heavy-water reactor at Arak will produce large quantities of plutonium as a by-product, but will not be completed for some years.
Iran has been working on a range of ballistic missiles. Its liquid-fuel Shahab-3, with a range of 1,300km (810 miles) or more, can already reach Israel. In May it tested the 2,000-km Sejjil missile. As a solid-fuel rocket, this could be fired at short notice from mobile launchers. Atomic bombs can be put on aircraft or even smuggled in ships. But missiles are the quickest and most reliable way to deliver them.
Finally, Iran has also worked on fitting a bomb inside a missile cone. IAEA inspectors have found evidence that Iran had designs to make uranium hemispheres (used in warheads) and had experimented with ultra-fast triggers that would be needed to “implode” these and set off a nuclear explosion. A contentious American intelligence assessment in 2007 said Iran’s work on warheads had stopped in 2003, although Israel, Britain and France dispute this. A secret annexe to an IAEA report earlier this year reckoned that Iran “has sufficient information to be able to design and produce a workable implosion nuclear device based on HEU”. It had also worked on fitting a bomb on a missile warhead.
So the main constraint on Iran going nuclear is the availability of fissile material. If it decides to break out of the NPT it might need a few months to build a bomb, but would risk military action; if it decides to sneak out clandestinely it might take years. Iran may yet choose to stop “one turn of the screwdriver” short of a bomb.
Iran has learned from Israel’s previous actions. It has dispersed and buried its nuclear facilities to make them harder to strike. In contrast with the “Two Minutes over Baghdad” of Israel’s raid on Osiraq, there is no easy shot. If anything, it has become harder to hobble Iran as time has passed. The discovery of Qom, as well as Iran’s plan to build ten more enrichment plants, suggests there may be more hidden sites.
Two months over Iran?
Perhaps the best opportunity to halt Iran’s programme by military means would have been an early strike on the Isfahan conversion plant. This turns uranium ore into UF6, the essential preliminary step before enrichment. It is above ground, and thus more vulnerable to attack. It was the first part of the nuclear programme to be restarted by Iran in 2005, and has since produced enough UF6 for scores of bombs.
A report last month by the Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank in New York, suggests that Israel could limit itself to three targets: Isfahan, Arak and Natanz. But to strike the centrifuges at Natanz, buried under 23 metres of soil and cement, it would have to use several bunker-busting bombs in “burrowing” mode: dropping bombs repeatedly on the same crater to dig down to the protected centrifuges. The report reckons that three bombs per “aim point” would give a 70% chance of success.
Still, the repeated sorties and loitering time needed to achieve this would probably require suppressing Iran’s air defences, which in turns requires more sorties, perhaps hundreds. Israel would be operating at the limit of its range, even with air-to-air refuelling, and would probably have to cross the air space of other countries. It might not be able to sustain such an operation. And would attacking a few sites really crimp Iran’s nuclear programme, or merely drive it entirely out of sight?
General Wald, for one, suggests that Israeli action may be little more than a “pinprick”. This may be galling for Israelis, but few would contest that the American air force, with planes deployed closer to Iran and the ability to bring in aircraft carriers, could do a much more thorough job. America is unlikely to escape blame for Israeli military action, so it might as well join in, say some. A bigger American operation could go after more nuclear sites and take out some of Iran’s means of retaliation: missile sites and naval bases. It might even want to strike a blow against the Revolutionary Guards. This scenario starts to look like a major air war; closer to two months over Iran than two minutes.
Iran could do much damage to the West in return. It could fire missiles, perhaps tipped with chemical or biological weapons, at American bases or Israel. It could attack oil installations in the Gulf, and try to choke off the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz. The American navy thinks any such disruption would be temporary. But fighting in the confined waters of the Gulf makes warships more vulnerable to surprise attacks and anti-shipping missiles.
Many Muslims would regard a military strike on Iran as another war against Islam. Iran could stoke anti-American insurgencies across its borders in Iraq and Afghanistan. It could also prod its Lebanese proxy, Hizbullah, and the Palestinian Hamas movement to resume their missile war against Israel. Israel periodically intercepts Iranian weapons shipments to Lebanon and Gaza; the latest, containing hundreds of tonnes of rockets, missiles, mortars, grenades and anti-tank weapons allegedly destined for Hizbullah, was seized last month off Cyprus. Iran, perhaps through Hizbullah, could also resort to terrorist tactics around the world.
So which will it be: a war with Iran, or a nuclear-armed Iran? Short of a revolution that sweeps away the Iranian regime—ushering in one that agrees, like post-apartheid South Africa, to give up its nuclear technology—sanctions may offer the only hope of avoiding the awful choice.
Orde F. Kittrie
Arms Control Today, Dec. 2009
Six days after his inauguration, President Barack Obama declared that “if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.” Over the 10 months since then, the Obama administration has followed up on the January 26 declaration with numerous friendly gestures to the Iranian regime.
The administration was right to offer incentives to and enter into dialogue with the Iranian leadership. Unfortunately, the Iranian regime has responded by continuing its aggressive and illegal behavior. The Obama administration should increase U.S. negotiating leverage over Iran by imposing crippling sanctions on Iran, beginning January 1, until Iran verifiably complies with its international obligations.
Iran’s record over the past 10 months, coupled with the collapse of the tentative deal to ship about three-quarters of Iran’s low-enriched uranium (LEU) out of the country, calls for changing Iran’s cost-benefit analysis.
At the time of Obama’s statement, Iran had produced a quantity of LEU that, with further enrichment to weapons-grade levels, would be enough for a bomb. Since the statement, Iran has produced more than half of the LEU that would be needed to serve as the basis for a second bomb. Iran has created this LEU in violation of legally binding provisions of three UN Security Council resolutions, which order Iran to “suspend all enrichment-related activities.”
At the same time, Iran has chosen to flout numerous other international legal obligations. Iran’s brutal response to postelection protests violated its human rights obligations under international law. Iran has also continued its destabilizing and illegal support for terrorist groups across the Middle East.
These violations of its international legal obligations demonstrate both that the Iranian regime is responding to Obama’s outstretched hand with a clenched fist and that any nuclear or other agreement that is reached with the Iranian regime must be designed to include measures, such as rigorous timelines and exceptional verification and monitoring provisions, to protect the West against Iran’s proclivity to break its international commitments.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s November 3 statement, in response to what he described as several personal letters from Obama, that negotiating with the United States would be “perverted and naïve” also calls into question the Iranian regime’s current motivation to negotiate seriously with the United States.
The Rationale for Stronger Sanctions
Obama has set the end of 2009 as a deadline for reassessing engagement with Iran. Barring unforeseen developments before the end of the year, if Obama is to persuade Iran to begin complying with its existing international nuclear and other legal obligations and to enter into rigorous new obligations, he will need to change Iran’s cost-benefit analysis.
Although the United States should remain open to negotiations with Iran after December 31, this deadline should not be allowed to pass without consequence. Iranian officials have crowed about their success in using the 2002-2006 nuclear negotiations with the Europeans to buy time for Iran to advance its nuclear program. In order to deter the Iranian regime from similarly dragging out the current round of negotiations while advancing its nuclear program, it must be made clear that Iran will incur a significant cost for failure to suspend its enrichment-related activities, as required by UN Security Council resolutions, and increasingly higher costs if it has still failed to comply at periodic intervals thereafter.
Strong international sanctions on Iran have yet to be tried. The entirety of UN Security Council sanctions on Iran thus far consist only of (1) a ban on supplying Iran with various nuclear and ballistic missile items and technology, (2) a freeze on overseas assets of a few dozen named Iranian officials and institutions, (3) a ban on the export of arms by Iran, and (4) a ban on the overseas travel of a handful of Iranian officials. The sanctions imposed on Iran by the Security Council thus far are much weaker than the sanctions imposed on Liberia during its civil war, Sierra Leone in response to its 1997 military coup, Yugoslavia during the Bosnia crisis, Haiti in response to its 1991 military coup, South Africa in response to apartheid, Libya in response to its support for terrorism, and Iraq in response to its invasion of Kuwait and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs. The current weak sanctions on Iran are a missed opportunity because Iran’s heavy dependence on foreign trade leaves it potentially highly vulnerable to strong economic sanctions.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said the administration will work to impose “crippling” sanctions on Iran “in the event that our offers are either rejected or the process is inconclusive or unsuccessful.” Such strong sanctions on Iran would serve several useful purposes, including (1) coercing the Iranian regime into halting its illegal behavior, if the costs of proceeding with the nuclear program or supporting terrorism are increased sufficiently to outweigh the benefits to the regime of proceeding with the program or supporting terrorism; (2) constraining Iran from illegal behavior, if the sanctions materially reduce Iran’s supply of goods necessary to advance the nuclear program, oppress its citizens, or support terrorist groups; (3) deterring other countries that might be contemplating similar illegal behavior; and (4) upholding the credibility of the Security Council, the nuclear nonproliferation regime, and the Obama administration.
Opponents of sanctioning Iran often assert that such sanctions might harm innocent Iranians as well as the regime. Yet, whatever harm the Iranian people might incur from a tightening of sanctions in response to their government’s illegal nuclear weapons program would pale in comparison to the humanitarian costs to the United States and the world of an Iranian nuclear arsenal. Such an arsenal would almost certainly embolden Iran to increase its sponsorship of deadly terrorism, likely cause a dangerous cascade of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East that would result in the end of the globally beneficial nuclear nonproliferation regime, and greatly increase the risk of a nuclear 9/11.
Strong Security Council sanctions helped bring down apartheid. In addition, strong sanctions have in recent years helped stop illegal nuclear weapons programs and terrorism. For example, strong Security Council sanctions helped induce Libya’s government to forsake terrorism and completely and verifiably relinquish its nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs. In exchange for the lifting of UN and U.S. sanctions, Libya ceased its support for terrorism, paid $2.7 billion to the families of the victims of the Pan Am flight 103 bombing, and allowed a team of British and U.S. government experts to enter the country and completely dismantle its WMD infrastructure.
In addition, it was discovered, in the wake of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, that strong Security Council sanctions had helped destroy Iraq’s nuclear weapons program and succeeded in preventing Saddam Hussein from restarting it between the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the coalition occupation of Iraq in 2003. Sanctions reduced the Iraqi government’s revenue, eroded Iraqi military capability and confidence, blocked the import of key materials and technologies for producing nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, and provided the United Nations with leverage to compel intrusive inspections and monitoring.
There is evidence that sanctions pressure could similarly dissuade Iran from proceeding with aspects of its nuclear program. The threat, thus far unrealised, of strong sanctions, in some cases supplemented by the threat of military action, reportedly contributed to Iran’s decision to cease assassinating dissidents in Europe in the 1990s, to reach out in 2003 to the Bush administration with a conciliatory fax and a halt to its nuclear weaponization research, and agree in November 2004 to a proposal by France, Germany, and the United Kingdom for a temporary suspension of its uranium conversion and enrichment plans.
There is more recent evidence that sanctions could force Iran’s leadership to modify its behavior. For example, a September 2006 report by an Iranian parliamentary committee said that a cutoff of Iran’s gasoline imports could force Iran “to modify its national priorities and devote most of its resources to prevent a major social upheaval.”
In addition, some Iranian elites have suggested that Iran make compromises to avoid economic sanctions. In November 2008, as Iran began to experience the economic pain resulting from a sharp drop in oil prices, 60 Iranian economists sent a letter calling on the regime to change course drastically. The letter said that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s “tension-creating” foreign policy has “scared off foreign investment and inflicted heavy damage” on the Iranian economy. During the recent Iranian presidential campaign, Ahmadinejad’s opponents blamed him and the sanctions engendered by his combative foreign policy for the country’s economic woes.
Additional sanctions could further increase these feelings of discontent. Iran’s leadership presumably values its continued control over the Iranian people even more than it values its nuclear program. Tehran might be willing to make concessions on its nuclear program if it feels that strong new sanctions are contributing to social upheaval sufficient to reach the tipping point at which the regime loses its grip over the Iranian people.
Although leaders of the opposition “Green Movement” inside Iran publicly say they oppose additional sanctions, several Iranians familiar with the leadership’s thinking have been putting the word out in Washington that movement leaders have privately said that stronger sanctions would help their cause.
Making Sanctions Work
Strengthened sanctions could take several forms. A wide-ranging European embargo, similar to the one the United States now has in place, would almost immediately bring the Iranian economy to its knees. Although vital for Iran, which purchases nearly 40 percent of its gasoline and much of its sophisticated machinery and parts needs from European companies, European exports to that country accounted for less than 1 percent of the European Union’s total worldwide trade in 2008.
The United States could take steps regardless of what the EU and the Security Council do. For example, the United States can increase its leverage over Iran by forcing the foreign countries and companies that keep the Iranian economy afloat to choose between doing business with Iran and doing business in the United States. The U.S. Department of the Treasury has already successfully forced foreign banks to make such a choice, convincing more than 80 banks, including most of the world’s top financial institutions, to cease some or all of their business with Iran.
As a result of Iran’s insufficient capacity to refine its crude oil, Iran must import some 40 percent of the gasoline it needs for internal consumption. Bills currently before the U.S. Congress would prohibit any company that is involved in providing Iran with refined petroleum products, including gasoline, or enhancing Iran’s refining capacity from doing business in the United States. Action by individual members of Congress, including introduction of these bills, has reportedly already persuaded two of Iran’s five top gasoline suppliers in 2008 to stop providing gasoline to Iran. U.S. executive branch action, congressional passage of sanctions legislation, or both could convince Iran’s remaining and potential major suppliers to refrain from providing gasoline to Iran. 
Such steps would significantly increase the nuclear program’s economic and political cost to the Iranian leadership. When Iran attempted to ration gasoline during the summer of 2007, violent protests forced the regime to back down. As a BBC report noted at the time, having to ration fuel is “dangerous” for the government of “an oil-rich country like Iran, where people think cheap fuel is their birthright and public transport is very limited.” Squeezing Iran’s gasoline imports would remind the Iranian people that instead of investing in oil refining capacity to meet Iran’s growing demands, the Iranian government has chosen to invest in a nuclear program that is contrary to international law, is economically inefficient, and has resulted in international isolation and various sanctions targeting Iran. Although Iran probably could replace some of its current gasoline imports, finding replacement suppliers would take time, and replacements would be more expensive.
Obama already has sufficient legal authority to compel Iran’s gasoline suppliers to choose between the U.S. and Iranian markets. Quietly squeezing Iran’s gasoline supplies through low-profile executive branch action could make the Iranian people less likely to blame the U.S. government and more likely to blame their own government for resulting shortages. The U.S. Treasury has successfully used this approach with regard to its financial measures. Such a technique could also be applied to companies in other sectors that do business with the United States and supply key materials to Iran.
Sanctions pressure is the best remaining hope for peacefully preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and for deterring other countries that might be contemplating following Iran’s bad example. The Obama administration must hold Iran to a December 31 deadline and insist that Tehran comply with its international obligations by verifiably relinquishing its nuclear weapons program. If Tehran fails to meet this deadline, it will be time to change the regime’s cost-benefit calculus by beginning to impose crippling sanctions on Iran.
Orde F. Kittrie is a professor of law at Arizona State University, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and a former U.S. Department of State attorney specializing in nonproliferation and sanctions. He has testified on nonproliferation issues before Congress and is chair of the Nonproliferation, Arms Control and Disarmament Group of the American Society of International Law.
1. “Last February, Iran accumulated enough LEU to be able to enrich enough weapon-grade uranium for one nuclear weapon. At Iran’s current rate of 2.77 kilograms of LEU hexafluoride per day, Iran would accumulate in total enough LEU to use as feed for the production of sufficient weapon-grade uranium for two nuclear weapons by the end of February 2010.” David Albright, Paul Brannan, and Jacqueline Shire, “ISIS Report: IAEA Report on Iran,” August 28, 2009, http://isis-online.org/uploads/isis-reports/documents/Analysis_IAEA_Report.pdf. According to IAEA reports, Iran had produced a total of 1,010 kilograms of LEU hexafluoride as of January 31, 2009, and 1,763 kilograms by October 31, 2009. David Albright and Jacqueline Shire, “ISIS Report: IAEA Report on Iran,” November 16, 2009, http://isis-online.org/isis-reports/detail/iaea-report-on-iran-fordow-enrichment-plant-at-advanced-stage-of-constructi/.
2. UN Security Council Resolution 1737 orders that “Iran shall without further delay suspend the following proliferation-sensitive nuclear activities: (a) all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, including research and development.” UN Security Council, Resolution 1737, S/RES/1737, December 23, 2006. Resolutions 1747 and 1803 explicitly affirm that decision. UN Security Council, Resolution 1747, S/RES/1747, March 24, 2007; UN Security Council, Resolution 1803, S/RES/1803, March 3, 2008.
3. See International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, www2.ohchr.org/English/law/ccpr.htm.
4. For example, the Iranian ship carrying weapons from Iran to Yemeni rebels, which was seized by the Yemeni government on October 26, violated UN Security Council Resolution 1747, which orders that “Iran shall not supply, sell or transfer directly or indirectly from its territory or by its nationals or using its flag vessels or aircraft any arms or related materiel.” A second ship, carrying 500 tons of weapons from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon, which was seized by the Israeli navy on November 3, violated Resolution 1747 as well as Resolution 1701, which ordered all States to “prevent…the sale or supply to any entity or individual in Lebanon of arms and related materiel of all types.” UN Security Council, Resolution 1701, S/RES/1701, August 11, 2006.
5. See, e.g., Phillip Sherwell, “How We Duped the West, by Iran’s Nuclear Negotiator,” Sunday Telegraph, March 5, 2006, p. 24.
6. See Security Council Resolutions 1737, 1747, and 1803.
7. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, April 22, 2009.
8. See, e.g., John Kifner, “The Mandela Visit; Mandela Backs Sanctions and Meets U.S. Executives,” The New York Times, June 22, 1990, p. 8.
9. “[T]he surprise decision by Libyan President Muammar Gadhafi in 2003 to renounce weapons of mass destruction was partly influenced by his desire to end the decade-old U.S. sanctions and to gain access to American oil field technology and know-how.” Gary Clyde Hufbauer et al., Economic Sanctions Reconsidered, 3rd ed. (Washington, DC: Peterson Institute for International Economics, 2008), pp. 12-13.
10. The sanctions on Libya both contained Gaddafi’s ability to develop weapons of mass destruction and ultimately coerced him, including by grinding down Libya’s oil industry and causing economic problems so severe they threatened his grip on Libya. See Orde F. Kittrie, “Averting Catastrophe: Why the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Is Losing Its Deterrence Capacity and How to Restore It,” Michigan Journal of International Law, Vol. 28, No. 2 (2007), pp. 337-430.
11. Rolf Ekeus, chief UN weapons inspector in Iraq from 1991 to 1997, said, “Keeping the sanctions was the stick, and the carrot was that if Iraq cooperated with the elimination of its weapons of mass destruction, the Security Council would lift the sanctions. Sanctions were the backing for the inspections, and they were what sustained my operation almost for the whole time.” George A. Lopez and David Cortright, “Containing Iraq: Sanctions Worked,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2004, p. 96. “UN-authorized sanctions denying Saddam Hussein unlimited access to Iraq’s oil revenues, coupled with the periodic use of force, provided UN inspectors with enough leverage to find and destroy Iraq’s stockpiles and facilities for producing chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons.” Hufbauer et al., Economic Sanctions Reconsidered, p. 12.
12. See, e.g., Dennis Ross and David Makovsky, Myths, Illusions & Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East (New York: Viking, 2009), pp. 188-190, 196-197.
13. Agence France-Presse, “Iranian Lawmakers Feared Social Upheaval >From Sanctions,” January 20, 2007, www.spacewar.com/reports/Iranian_Lawmakers_Feared_Social_Upheaval_From_Sanctions_999.html.
14. Borzou Daragahi, “Economists in Iran Criticize Ahmadinejad,” Los Angeles Times, November 10, 2008, p. A3.
15. For public reflections of this, see, e.g., Nazenin Ansari and Jonathan Paris, “The Message From the Streets of Tehran,” The New York Times, November 6, 2009; House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Iran: Recent Developments and Implications for U.S. Policy, 111th Cong., 1st sess., 2009, pp. 81-83, http://foreignaffairs.house.gov/111/51254.pdf (testimony of Abbas Milani and Karim Sadjadpour).
16. See European Commission, “Trade: Iran,” http://ec.europa.eu/trade/creating-opportunities/bilateral-relations/countries/iran/index_en.htm.
17. Paul Sampson, “U.S. Gasoline Move Against Iran Seen Ineffective Without UN Support,” International Oil Daily, August 5, 2009; Ammar Zaidi, “Reliance Shifts Exports to Mideast and Europe as Jamnagar Ramps Up,” International Oil Daily, August 12, 2009.
18. In 2009, Iran’s imported gasoline has reportedly been supplied largely by two Swiss companies. See Paul Sampson, “Iran’s Parliament Votes to Phase Out Costly Gasoline Subsidies,” Oil Daily, November 11, 2009.
19. “Iran Fuel Rations Spark Violence,” BBC News, June 27, 2007.
By Michael Gerson
Washington Post, Wednesday, December 2, 2009
With a decision on Afghanistan, we will now see whether a reluctant president can persuade a reluctant Congress and inspire a reluctant nation to accept additional wartime sacrifice. But the administration must feel relieved. The mere act of choosing releases accumulated tension like shooting a bow, wherever the arrow lands.
That relief, however, will be short-lived. Coinciding with the Afghan decision, Iran has entered a final stage of irrevocable choices about its nuclear program. It has backed out of a deal that would have sent most of its uranium stockpile abroad to be processed for peaceful purposes. Following a censure of Iran by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced plans to construct 10 additional nuclear enrichment sites. Iran’s parliament passed a resolution urging decreased cooperation with the IAEA. Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami preached a sermon at Tehran University pledging that Iran would produce its own high-grade uranium for “medical research.” This is a regime in total defiance of international demands, moving toward breakout nuclear weapons capability.
So, have President Obama’s diplomats failed? Were their honeyed words not sweet enough? Not really, because the current crisis has little to do with their skill, or lack of it. It is being caused by internal dynamics in Iran that seem immune to the rational offers and counteroffers of diplomacy.
In Iran, we are seeing the consolidation of a military dictatorship. Since the Iranian revolution of 1979, the nation’s clerical leaders have had a military arm — the Revolutionary Guard Corps — that has acted as their ideological enforcers. It polices Tehran, organizes paramilitary forces, effectively runs Iranian elections, dominates large sectors of the economy, operates missile systems, directs Iran’s international support for terrorism, controls Iran’s chemical and biological weapons, and would be in charge of an Iranian nuclear bomb. Ahmadinejad and many other leaders are former Guard officers.
But in reaction to mass protests after the fraudulent presidential election in June, the Guard’s control has expanded comprehensively. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently reorganized Iran’s intelligence services to give the Guard the lead role — clearly fearful that the regular intelligence agencies were unreliable. The Guard has assumed greater power over Iranian media. It is increasing Internet censorship and placing militia instructors in elementary schools. Experts on Iran now debate whether the Guard is fully under Khamenei’s control or whether it may be beyond all control.
Iran’s theocracy has become a military junta with a veneer of religion. There are fatigues beneath the robes. On the nuclear issue, the main question is: Does this regime believe that nuclear weapons will help ensure its survival? There is every reason to believe that it does. As the disorders since June revealed the regime’s vulnerability, it has sped up its nuclear program. Drained of legitimacy and fearing a color revolution, Iran’s military government seems to believe that the bomb will confer influence and permanence. It is not an irrational calculation.
In this light, Obama’s policy of setting deadlines for cooperation that are violated with impunity, and continually extending the hand of engagement after it is slapped again and again, is both weak and irrelevant. But the alternatives are not easy or obvious. The crippling economic isolation of Iran is worth trying, again. But it would require a number of unreliable nations to sacrifice large economic interests in Iran — something they have been unwilling to do before. Direct military options are uncertain and opposed by the military itself. It is difficult to imagine Obama, the Great Deliberator, taking actions that George W. Bush concluded were too risky.
But the security implications of a nuclear Iran could be greater than failure in Afghanistan. Iran is an unstable revolutionary power with global ambitions and terrorist ties. Nuclear proliferation does not get more dangerous than this.
There is, however, an untried option. So far, President Obama has seemed to view Iran’s ongoing democratic uprising as a pesky obstacle to engagement. The administration has reduced funding for human rights programs in Iran and looked the other way as exiled opponents of the Iranian regime have been attacked within Iraq.
In addition to serious economic and military pressure, Obama could try the strategy the Iranian regime most fears: supporting, overtly and covertly, the democratic resistance against military rule. Not out of idealism, but realism. It would be a source of leverage on the Iranian regime, at a time when American leverage is limited. And it might hasten the return of civilian control in Iran, so that America would actually have a negotiating partner.