Since the Iranian revolution in 1979, the theocratic state that emerged has been a dangerous international outlaw in a dangerous, unstable region. In recent years it has sought to become the dominant regional player by supporting religious fundamentalist/terrorist factions in perennially unstable Lebanon (Hezbollah), in the breakaway Palestinian territory Gaza (Hamas), and anti-government, anti-U.S. militias in Iraq and Afghanistan. It also has sought to divide the Arab world by cultivating an ally in Syria and taking a hostile stance towards Saudi Arabia.
Over the last few years, while developing the capacity to develop nuclear weapons, it has spurned all efforts by the international community, acting through the United Nation's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to inspect and verify its claims that its nuclear program was exclusively for domestic energy purposes.
The international response to Iran's intransigence via the United Nations has been low key rhetoric about the "unacceptable" nature of their “research” program and a series of minimal and ineffective economic sanctions. Now the Iranian government has once again demonstrated its disdain for international standards of behavior and universally accepted international law, by fomenting an attack on the British embassy in Teheran. President Obama's reaction to the assault was: he was "deeply disturbed".
After the futility and naivete of Obama’s attempt to “extend the hand of friendship” to this pariah state, this latest demonstration of aggression, following the latest IAEA report, demands a continuing, serious, and robust international effort beyond what has been implemented, to make Iran’s religious leadership aware that they have reached the limits of hostility and intransigence versus the West.
The proximate cause of the attack on the British embassy was the imposition of the most recent economic sanctions on Iran by the British government in relation to Iran’s nuclear program and the above mentioned report by the IAEA that Iran was conducting nuclear computer tests with military applicability, and then,yet another rejection by Iran of the UN’s demand that inspectors be allowed to evaluate their nuclear program.
The Iranian government's nuclear development program has been on going since approximately 2002-2003. Repeated demands by Western nations and the UN for inspections have been rebuffed. Only after years of stalemate on this issue has pressure in the form of economic sanctions been applied. Attempts to impose economic sanctions that would be in theory, universally applicable through the UN Security Council, have proved difficult because of the opposition of China and Russia, both of whom have a veto. Thus, on the UN level, only weak sanctions have been possible. The latest effort, UNSC Resolution 1929, passed in 2010, only extends a ban on armaments and on economic transactions specifically related to nuclear weapons technology.
Outside the UN, the U.S, Canada and the European Union have adopted more rigorous economic sanctions relating first to banking relationships and financial transactions, and then with the the passage by, the U.S. Congress in 2010 of the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act, which contains the earlier proposed Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act of 2009. These provisions are the most punitive sanctions implemented so far in any venue. Iran, which is the world's fourth largest petroleum producer, has limited refining capability and thus imports roughly 40% of it's refined products i.e. gasoline, diesel, heating oil. Unfortunately, although the U.S. has influence over some of the world's refining entities, U.S. law does not apply directly to the major suppliers of Iran's refined product needs. Approximately 80% of Iran's imports come from two Dutch based energy companies.
The conventional wisdom regarding the efficacy of economic sanctions in pursuit of their primary goal, the modification of the target state's behavior, in this case, the acquisition of nuclear weapons, is that they don't work. The fundamental reason for this, especially with regards to general trade embargoes, is that there are always non-complying nations and entities that continue to trade in essential goods with the target state. In the case of Iran, numerous states fall into this category. However, this does not mean that economic sanctions directed at Iran should be be abandoned. Iran is still several years away from having an operational nuclear weapon and a viable delivery system. Meaningful sanctions impose a cost on Iran and send a message of broad consensus among the world's leading economic powers and four (U.S., France, UK, Israel) of the current nine (Russia, China, Pakistan, India, N. Korea) nuclear weapons states that Iran will continue to pay a price if it achieves nuclear weapons status as well as being the target of enhanced military deterrence strategies.
Critics of economic sanction policies always complain that they impose harsh conditions on “innocent” civilian populations and not the governing authorities and are thus unjust and ineffective. But this is a flawed position. It is not possible to separate the political authorities of a nation and the general population into two distinct and opposing groups. The Iranian revolution and take over of the U.S. embassy and the resulting hostage crisis in 1979 itself, demonstrated the public support for the new anti-west, anti-liberal theocratic government. A weak reformist political movement which has since developed does not have the support of the full Iranian population as the recent take over and ransacking of the British embassy makes obvious. Economic sanctions make clear to the general population that the policies of the government are unacceptable to the international community and place them in danger of more harmful circumstances that could easily spin out of control.
Economic sanctions are an alternative to military action and thus more acceptable to the international community and less harmful to the target nation's general population. In the current situation, the prospect of failed economic pressure and diplomatic isolation could lead directly to a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities and a regional war. Thus the imposition of even more punitive economic sanctions becomes a last resort to a major regional crisis with potentially devastating consequences.
The main weaknesses in the economic sanctions efforts remain China and Russia. China is aggressively engaging Iran in a rapidly growing trade and investment relationship with Iran as a major purchaser of Iranian oil and investor in Iranian energy development. Bilateral trade was $30 billion in 2010 and is estimated to grow to $50 billion by 2015. Russian bilateral trade was only $2 billion in 2010 but will grow rapidly as Russia provides nuclear technology, oil and gas equipment and consumer goods. Russian energy giant Lukoil, in conjunction with China's Zhuhai Zhenrong energy company have recently completed a huge sale of refined petroleum to Iran in opposition to the West's refined products embargo on Iran.
While the depth of these economic relationships make cooperation on economic sanctions against Iran problematic, negotiating efforts could still possibly produce some progress. Obama made a major concession to Russia when he abandoned the Bush administration's plan to build a missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic as a defense against the future development of Iranian long range ballistic missiles. Russia was vehemently opposed to this plan and Obama could have used it as leverage to negotiate Russian cooperation on Iran. Instead the abandonment of the plan in 2009 without conditions, had the look of Obama's simplistic “reset” of the U.S. relationship with Russia. Now Obama has announced a modified plan to place interceptor missiles capable only of destroying Iran's intermediate range missiles in Romania and Poland along with an early warning radar system in Turkey. Russia is now threatening to target these facilities unless concessions are made with respect to their operation and control. This again provides an opportunity to negotiate a modification of Russia's position with respect to Iran if Obama should take it. An aggressive and nuclear armed Islamic theocracy on its border should also be a significant concern to Russia who somehow finds an American/European anti-missile shield on its borders to be a security threat.
Additionally, since Russia and China's reluctance to join in deterring Iran from becoming a nuclear power is primarily based on Iran's petroleum and gas resources, there is built in contradiction with the prospect of the military strike end game. Israel is preparing for such a strike, Obama says it is “on the table”, and all the credible Republican presidential candidates say it is the last option. Such an attack would in all probability result in counter strikes by Iran and then secondary strikes by Israel or even the U.S. Such a scenario could have a huge impact on the availability of Iran's oil supplies and investment opportunities in that sector. As the prospect for military action becomes greater it would be in both Russia and China's interests to persuade Iran to pursue another course.
This is the most serious foreign policy issue currently facing the U.S. and the Middle East region. Robust diplomacy based on increasingly coercive measures seems to be the only course available as simple persuasive diplomacy based on reason has been consistently rejected by Iran. The U.S. is not without leverage with both Russia and China and it is important that President Obama engage in that effort.