Why New Sanctions Raise Danger of Iran Building Nuclear Weapons

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Ebrahim Noroozi / AFP / Getty Images

Iranian navy conducts the "Velayat-90" naval wargames in the Strait of Hormuz in southern Iran on Jan. 1, 2012. Iran defiantly announced that it had tested a new missile and made an advance in its nuclear programme after the U.S. unleashed extra sanctions that sent its currency to a record low.

The White House believes the latest round of saber rattling from Iran is a sign that sanctions are beginning to bite. Perhaps. But as the U.S. and its European partners move to throttle Iran’s economy by cutting off its ability to export oil, it requires a stretch of the imagination to posit that Tehran’s response will be the one desired by Washington.

The Administration’s stated goal is to bring Iran to the table to negotiate a deal that would end international concerns over a nuclear program that has given Iran the means to build nuclear weapons—even though, as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta emphasized in a TV intervew on Sunday, U.S. and allied officials believe Tehran has not yet decided to build the bomb. Panetta allowed that the U.S. might launch a military strike if Iran tried to build nuclear weapons. “But the responsible thing to do right now,” he continued, “is to keep putting diplomatic and economic pressure on them to force them to do the right thing. And to make sure that they do not make the decision to proceed with the development of a nuclear weapon.”

But many analysts familiar with the thinking of Iran’s leadership warn that the pressure tactics being adopted by the Obama administration are incompatible with the objective of persuading Iran to refrain from building nuclear weapons, and may represent a raising of the ante which, if it doesn’t persuade Tehran to fold, could press the Iranian regime towards making the fateful nuclear decision.

“The United States cannot hope to bargain with a country whose economy it is trying to disrupt and destroy,” warned former Bush Administration State Department policy adviser Suzanne Maloney, writing in Foreign Affairs. She continued:

 As severe sanctions devastate Iran’s economy, Tehran will surely be encouraged to double down on its quest for the ultimate deterrent [nuclear weapons]… Given the ayatollahs’ innate mistrust of the West, they cannot be nudged into a constructive negotiating process by measures that exacerbate their vulnerability. American policy is now effectively predicated on achieving political change in Tehran. Such an outcome will likely prove even more elusive  than productive talks with the revolutionary regime.

Regardless of the Administration’s intent, the new measures, which are explicitly designed to throttle the Iranian economy, are being read in Tehran as further evidence that Washington’s goal is to force regime-change. That’s hardly likely to convince Iran’s leaders that they don’t need nuclear weapons; on the contrary, Iran appears to be bracing itself for war.

For a relatively weak state (Fareed Zakaria once noted in response the “its 1938 and Iran is Nazi Germany” hysteria touted by some, that by measure of the global military balance of 1938 Iran would be the equivalent of Rumania) and a state ideologically at odds with far more powerful enemies, nuclear weapons, as North Korea’s example demonstrates, provide a gold-plated insurance policy. For now, Iran  has conducted extensive maneuvers in the Strait of Hormuz, as if to demonstrate its capacity to disrupt global oil supplies (which Iranian officials have threatened to do if Iran is barred from selling its own oil). And in Tehran, the population is anxiously buying up supplies and assuming that Western bombers will soon fill their skies. Some analysts see the expectation of being attacked as the reason behind Iran’s increasingly aggressive bluster.

“My sources inside the country say the circle of regime insiders around Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei truly believes an attack is inevitable, perhaps even before the U.S. presidential election,” says Century Foundation analyst Genevieve Abdo. “Therefore, to save face at home and in the region, Iran’s saber-rattling has reached a fever pitch.”Iran’s leader has a strong domestic political incentive to maintain the conflict with the West, she argues, but at the same time to avoid a confrontation which could lead to the regime’s destruction. A number of Iran analysts have noted that Khamenei’s traditional response to foreign pressure is to escalate the confrontation by raising pressure of his own. The Supreme Leader, warns Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “wants to make clear to the outside world, specifically the United States, that Western pressure is going to harden, not soften, Iran’s behavior.”

The escalation of an external threat also helps him reunite a dangerously divided regime  (whose rival factions face off in a parliamentary election in March), creating a narrative that blames hostile Western pressure for the economic pain suffered by ordinary Iranians. It also fosters a siege environment in which political opposition is equated with treason. Even in the narrowest economic sense, talking up the possibility of confrontation helps Iran mitigate the effect of sanctions: The oil price seems to jump a few dollars with each new rattle of the saber.

In the absence of established channels of communication and diplomatic engagement, the danger is rising of  both sides stumbling into war. State Department adviser and Tufts University professor Vali Nasr suggests that Iran’s regime may, in fact, be spoiling for a fight, albeit a limited one, which would help it stave off internal collapse. And, he warns, if Khamenei believes his adversaries are turning up the heat to force his overthrow, he’s more, rather than less, likely to use Iran’s nuclear infrastructure to build the ultimate insurance policy. Khamenei himself may have issued a fatwa in 2005 declaring the production and use of nuclear weapons un-Islamic, but Yale researcher Patrick Disney notes that during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, then-leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, faced with a dilemma over Saddam’s chemical-weapons capability, created a precedent for overriding religious edicts in defense of the state. “Khomeini established the philosophical foundation for a key principle within the Islamic Republic known as ‘maslahat-e nizam‘ or ‘expediency of the system’,” Disney writes, “by which the needs of the Islamic Republic as a political institution might trump even Islamic law.”

And the mounting pressure and threat-level from outside could, in fact, prompt Khamenei to trump his own fatwa. “The focus of Western policy has been on imposing pressure in order to give Iran’s leaders a reason not to weaponise,” Disney adds. “Equally important, however, and far too often overlooked, is the need to take care not to give Iran a reason to weaponise.”

The pattern of Iran’s nuclear development suggests that it has used the rubric of a civilian nuclear energy program to assemble the means to build weapons—even if, like Japan and Brazil for example, it has thus far stopped short of crossing the threshold to begin actually building them.

Whether Khamenei gives the order to launch a weapons program will likely be determined by his perception of Iran’s threat environment. The logic of those agitating for sanctions is that only the pain they inflict, and the threat of force, will persuade the Iranian leadership that the cost of seeking nuclear breakout capability is prohibitive. But the Iranian leaders’ view of the motivations of its adversaries, and dynamics in the region, may in fact convince the regime to absorb whatever blows come its way in order to acquire a nuclear deterrent. (Pakistan and North Korea would provide encouraging examples of badly behaved weak states treated with kid gloves because of their nuclear status; the fate of leaders like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi who gave up their own nuclear programs speaks for itself.)

Nasr says the regime was divided over how to respond, but recent covert attacks on Revolutionary Guard missile facilities, plus sanctions against oil exports, has tilted the balance in favor of those pressing for retaliation. He says a more bellicose Iranian position is underscored by a belief that the economic crisis leaves the West vulnerable to oil price shocks, at the same time as Washington’s regional strategic position declines. “Rather than discourage this aggressive Iranian position, U.S. policy is encouraging it, making a dangerous military confrontation more likely,” Nasr warns. “There are no easy options for dealing with Iran, but not persisting in a failing strategy is a good place to start.”

American officials would dispute the idea that theirs is a “failing strategy.” Mindful of a U.S. electoral season in which branding President Obama as weak on Iran has become a favorite Republican talking point, they talk up the diplomatic achievement of putting in place the most wide-ranging sanctions Iran has ever faced. The purpose of those sanctions, explained Obama’s U.N. envoy Ambassador Susan Rice at the Security Council last month, according to CBS, is to “buy more time to resolve the nuclear crisis through diplomatic means.”

The problem, of course, is that there’s no obvious diplomatic endgame in place. Mindful that no channels currently exist for sustained diplomacy, Turkey has once again moved into the breach and is seeking to broker new talks between Iran and its Western adversaries. Right now, most of the ‘diplomacy’ between the protagonists is conducting through a megaphone and is limited to exchanging ultimatums. Late last month, a group of U.S. foreign policy graybeards, represented by former Ambassadors Thomas Pickering and William Luers, warned that the U.S. strategy lacked a serious diplomatic component, and that raised the risk of confrontation.

“Military action is becoming the seemingly fail-safe solution for the United States to deal with real and imagined security problems,” Pickering and Luers wrote in the Washington Post “The uncertain and intellectually demanding ways of diplomacy are seen as ‘unmanly’ and tedious—likely to involve compromise and even ‘appeasement’.” Iran, they and other analysts have argued, has not been presented with a plausible (to its leaders) path away from the brink. “The slow, elusive diplomatic process to achieve U.S. objectives does not provide the sound-bite satisfaction of military threats or action,” they argue. “Multiple, creative efforts to engage Iran’s leaders and provide a dignified exit from the corner in which the world community has placed them could achieve more durable solutions at a far lower cost.”

But real diplomacy and its attendant compromises are difficult at best of times, and an election year —in both Washington and Tehran—is not the best of times. Without compromise and confidence building, the only diplomacy on offer is that of the megaphone variety. And if Iran’s leaders are loathe to come out with their hands up, the alternative is more likely to be war and, , quite possibly, a nuclear-armed Iran.