If the newest round of sanctions levied against Iran by the international community doesn’t stop Iran’s march towards a nuclear weapon, what will? That answer to that question, whatever it may be, will fundamentally shift the balance of power in the Middle East. There is no good solution to dilemma of the Iranian bomb, and as time goes on and the bomb comes nearer to reality, the options will only get worse. Nonetheless, a decision must be made. Is the Obama administration up to the task?
In a recent New York Times analysis, veteran journalist David Sanger suggests not. The administration has plans, to be sure — diplomatic pressure, military deterrence, backroom negotiations, continued economic measures, intelligence operations, etc — but as Sanger depressingly notes, the administration’s own officials grant that even combined, all these steps will work out to be “not enough.” If resolutely applied, they may slow Iran’s progress towards a nuclear weapon, but that’s all. If things continue down their current path, an Iranian nuclear bomb is guaranteed.
After all, the history of the regime has shown that international pressure does little to impress the Tehran theocracy. After the UN Security Council handed the latest round of sanctions down two weeks ago, Iran indeed spun the situation to its advantage, using the unified front being presented by the world’s great powers to rally support for the regime inside Iran. “We have always used this unity option with a solid heart against any attack,” prominent Iranian cleric Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani told reporters. “I believe we have to preserve this unity, even if it has been slightly tarnished.” In other words, the regime is portraying itself as the hero, standing up to foreign pressure. It’s an old game, but a useful one.
Even as the regime makes good use of this latest series of sanctions, adopted for their mutual agreeability to all the veto-wielding members of the Security Council rather than their ability to punish Iran, President Obama is working to weaken sanctions proposed by Congress, including his own party. The new sanctions, targeting Iran’s energy sector, are reportedly deemed by the administration to be too strong, running the risk of provoking a backlash from European allies, as well as the Russians and Chinese. (Concerns over a European backlash seem unlikely, given that the European Union is also discussing a new round of sanctions, likewise aimed at Iran’s petroleum revenues, upon which the regime is totally dependent for survival.)
Why the President would seek to weaken sanctions that even the dovish Europeans are considering is difficult to fathom, particularly since these would not be international sanctions, but limited to American companies and individuals. Perhaps it’s yet another attempt to demonstrate America’s goodwill to a regime that continues to oppress its own citizens, export terror and seeks to destabilize the Western world’s only reliable outpost in the region. Whatever the aim, it will not succeed. Not sanctioning Iran didn’t work, but Obama’s advisors agree that sanctioning it won’t work, either … what else can be done?
Indeed, Sanger’s piece lays out the grim proof that sanctions do not work. Sanctions, and the threat of them, did not stop India and Pakistan from developing and testing their nuclear weapons. North Korea utterly destroyed its own national economy in the pursuit of nuclear weapons even in the face of devastating international sanctions (far worse than have been levied against Iran), and the end result was a starving populace in a nuclear-armed state. Years of sanctions did little to bring Saddam to heel, only outright conquest of his country was able to dislodge him and his loyalists from Iraq’s numerous palaces. Iran has already accepted that it will face sanctions if it continues to pursue a bomb, and has planned accordingly. The regime has been crystal clear in their priorities — they value a nuclear arsenal more than President Obama’s friendship or free trade with the international community. Short of vaporizing Tel Aviv, they can’t get much clearer. Why can’t the White House accept what is plain?
Perhaps because the administration is privately aware that they have no idea how to respond to the inevitable, and therefore seek to postpone it as long as possible. One White House official told Sanger that asking what America will do to stop Iran’s construction of a bomb is “not the kind of question you win many points asking.” Other suggest that the White House has not yet, even at this late date, truly determined how far it will let Iran go, and what steps it’s willing to take to hold them back from that point of no return. That the White House might not have yet made this fundamental determination is nothing less than horrifying. Every other option, every possible contingency scenario, hinges upon knowing how far one is willing to go. Until you know what, you are helpless. Iran knows this, and continues to build its bombs accordingly.
But not every country is as content to wait for Iran to embrace the ways of peace. Last week, the London Times reported that, afraid of what an Iranian bomb would mean for the Arab world, that Saudi Arabia had quietly consented to Israel flying through its airspace as part of any attack on Iran. Saudi Arabia quickly denied the report, of course, but it does point to a bleak truth — neither Israel nor the Arab states want to see Iran develop a bomb. And if the United States won’t take serious action to stop them, someone else — alone or in cooperation with their neighbors — might decide to do it themselves.
Matt Gurney is an editor at the National Post, a Canadian national newspaper, and writes and speaks on military and geopolitical issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.