In the wake of last November’s IAEA report, it is time once again to examine the adopted policy on the issue: sanctions. This in the context of the latest moves by the United States and the European Union to cripple Iran’s oil industry, and subsequent threats by Tehran to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz. Specifically, it is necessary to think about the nature of those sanctions and whether they are in any way useful to prevent the ayatollahs from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Moreover, we could go further and ask ourselves if that goal is worthwhile at all, regardless of the cost.
The rationale behind sanctions is the following: If enough material pain is inflicted against the Iranian people, the alleged nuclear weapons program would become so politically and economically costly that the regime would have no other options than to drop it. This way of thinking would be flawless if we could objectively agree on what level of suffering is inacceptable for both the Iranians and their leadership. Obviously, the problem is that we cannot do that. In fact, more sanctions could be not only ineffective, but even counterproductive.
Weapons, particularly of the big and terrifying kind, give a country prestige and security. Since its inception in 1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran and its political elite have felt insecure and suspicious of the intentions of its neighbours and its main enemy, the U.S. That still holds true. With Russia, India, Israel and Pakistan all having nuclear arsenals, and with Turkey being part of NATO, atomic bombs would give Iran a ‘calming’ deterrence capability. Consequently, there is a reasonable argument to be made that the reasons behind the nuclear program are too strong for Tehran to abandon its plans, even though if this implies losing oil revenue that is vital to an already besieged economy.
If this is indeed the case, popular protests triggered by the latest sanction would not oblige the regime to change its nuclear policy; in fact, the situation could result in repression and push Iran to speed up its pace towards nuclearization. It seems clear that in the mind of the Iranian leaders the experience of Libya and the defeat of Gaddafi are starkly present. Certainly, for them the words of Aisha Gaddafi, the Colonel’s daughter, probably ring true: “To every country that has weapons of mass destruction: keep them or make more so they will not meet the same fate as Libya” (March, 2011).
But in our analysis we may well be more adventurous and question if it is possible that the bulk of Iranian society could itself be willing on enduring more economic sanctions to attain nuclear capabilities. This might be the case. We should not ignore that the clerics’ shows of strength are partly intended at gathering popular support. Playing the card of national unity against the enemy might work up to a certain degree. Of course, this does not cancel the possibility of street protests like those in 2009. This latter prospect is surely one of the regime’s main fears, but we should bear the ambiguity of Iranian society in mind nonetheless.
Iran has abandoned its previous stance towards the West and shifted to a more combative attitude. This was the idea behind Tehran’s war games in the Strait of Hormuz, a vital waterway for exporting 40% of the world’s oil. According to prominent officials in the Iranian army, they are capable of blocking it as a response to sanctions considered by the regime to be an “act of war”. It is unlikely they would actually make good on such threats, for the Strait is as important to the overall world oil exports as to Iran’s own. Yet it is a scenario that should not be discarded out of hand. If indeed the oil embargo the West has agreed on is fully implemented, which already is a complex task, Tehran might well decide it is worth trying to close the Strait. It would certainly harm those Iranian oil exports still flowing despite the embargo, but it would also provoke spikes in oil prices, not a pleasant prospect for Western nations in the actual economic situation.
This is precisely what makes the implementation of sanctions difficult and what lies behind the reluctance of several actors (including here the Obama Administration itself). However, if the Strait is blocked, the U.S. Fifth Fleet would quickly retaliate. Assuming the Iranian navy gets defeated, that would expose the military vulnerability of the clerics, and reinforce the call of hardliners for greater weaponization. Yet another reason why sanctions may backfire.
So, if sanctions seem to be too risky, unpredictable or unsuited for this task, what is left then? Probably not diplomacy, at least in the foreseeable future, since both sides have burnt that bridge. There are already covert operations in place. These include facility sabotage, the assassination of scientists relevant to the program and cyberwarfare (2010 Stuxnet attack). However, this has only slowed down Iran’s nuclear plans, nothing more.
Thus, now is when we get to the critical point of possibly opting for a preventive attack, and here let us not delude ourselves: a strike against the Iranian nuclear infrastructure is highly dangerous to international security and stability. On the one hand, a preventive strike like this would only work if it is unexpected, so there would not be any Security Council debate before an attack. This would make it illegal under international law and upset not only the Iranians, but also the Russians and the Chinese. On the other hand, a quick strike, probably carried out by Israel, might not be that effective. It can be argued that to render the nuclear program useless a more sustained campaign is needed, and that would need the involvement of the U.S. and maybe others. Apart from all of this, Iran’s- as well as its and its allies’- possible retaliation should not be ignored. All of this makes it unclear whether playing this gambit is reasonable. A Middle East with a nuclearized Iran would might be a region with increased instability. That, however, is not enough of a reason to start a war over it.