The likelihood of economic sanctions persuading the Iranian leadership to abandon its quest for nuclear weapons is very low; the record of economic sanctions is not good: long-standing international sanctions remain in place against North Korea, Ivory Coast, and Somalia without noticeable effects on their policies; embargoes against Serbia and Libya ended, as with Iraq, only after military intervention forced change.
After long refusing to negotiate about its nuclear program, Iran has reversed itself. Talks with American and European representatives are scheduled to begin on 13 April in Ankara, Turkey. Still, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is skeptical about the outcome. Questioning the regime’s claim that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, she has vowed that the United States is “determined to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” Her skepticism echoes that of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s, which in November 2011 reported the Iranian program was consistent with the development of nuclear explosives. The preeminent though unresolved question remains: what to do if Iran refuses to change its nuclear course.
Sensible observers agree that a nuclear Iran would be a geo-political nightmare. President Obama has affirmed as well that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would be “unacceptable.” A nuclear-armed Iran would pose a mortal threat to Israel, would enlarge its toolbox as a sponsor of terrorism, and prompt other states also to go nuclear. But opinions differ about how soon Iran will have the capability to produce a bomb and what must be done to stop it.
Despite three years of urging by the Obama administration the Iranians have refused to curb their program. Their centrifuges continue to spin out enriched uranium without pause. The growing volume of material can easily be further enriched to bomb-quality standards in a matter of months.
Recently tightened economic sanctions by the United States and others have goaded Iranian leaders to agree to the talks. But based both on Iran’s past behavior and the historical ineffectiveness of sanctions, the chances that non-military pressure will alter the regime’s behavior seem slim to none.
Since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, the ayatollah-run regime has never ceased its hostility to the United States. Outright belligerency began in November of that year when Islamist students took over the U.S. embassy and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. Two years later, Iranian-backed terrorists struck twice at American targets in Lebanon. In April 1983 they bombed the American embassy in Beirut, and in October the U.S. military barracks there, killing 244 servicemen.
During the past decade, Iranian-backed forces have been responsible for numerous American battlefield casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Iran’s provision of arms and training to Hamas and Hezbollah has fueled the group’s terrorist activities against Israel, America’s principal ally in the Middle East.) While the United States may not consider itself at war with Iran, Iranian behavior hardly suggests the reverse is true.
Any hope for a successful outcome of the upcoming negotiations lies in the supposition that the Iranian leadership will be sensible and yield to further pressure short of military intervention. Here the administration offers mixed messages. Contrary to Secretary Clinton’s skepticism, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, seems to hold a more sanguine view of the regime’s sensibility. The Iranian regime “is a rational actor,” he said. This implies that Iran would permit verification that its program is not weapons-bound rather than suffer further diplomatic and economic pressure. But expecting sanctions to force policy change is improbable by any historical measure.
Examples abound. The United States and others have sustained an embargo against Cuba for more than fifty years. Most Arab countries have maintained a boycott of Israel since its establishment in 1948. The United Nations imposed a decade-long embargo on Iraq that ended only after Saddam Hussein’s regime suffered military defeat in 2003. At most, those sanctions caused some shortages and inconvenience, though in no instance a change of policy. Efforts elsewhere to influence behavior by diplomatic or economic pressure have proved equally futile. Long-standing international sanctions remain in place against North Korea, Ivory Coast, and Somalia without noticeable effects on their policies. Embargoes against Serbia and Libya ended, as with Iraq, only after military intervention forced change.
One of few presumptive exceptions was the peaceful dissolution of South Africa’s apartheid policy in 1994. World pressure on the country helped move its white population to support suffrage for all citizens. But South Africa’s democratic electoral structure, though limited largely to whites, had long been in place and not comparable to Iran’s Islamist-dominated authoritarian system. The ruling mullahs are no more likely to yield to economic pressure than have the North Koreans.
Sanctioned countries generally establish backchannels to receive food, fuel, and other necessities. Iran’s economy is reportedly suffering because of pressures from the West, but the country hardly needs secret channels to sustain a flow of essential goods. Russia, China, and others maintain very public commercial relations despite American protestation.
What exactly will the United States do if Iran remains unwilling to open its facilities for full inspection and provide the evidence called for by the West? If Obama and Clinton’s promises of prevention are genuine, the only option will be to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities. But despite those promises, the administration’s actions bespeak hesitancy. Emphasizing uncertainty of success and the condemnation that an attack might provoke, the government has counseled Israel to refrain from military action at this point.
Which raises the question whether at any point these caveats would be less salient. And when, if ever, the administration would see them as less of an obstacle to armed intervention.
* Leonard A. Cole, an expert on bioterrorism and on terror medicine, teaches at Rutgers University and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey
The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT).