Will Increased Economic Sanctions on Iran Discourage the Regime’s Pursuit of Nuclear and Ballistic Missile Programs? What Is the Best Course of Action for the United States?

Thomas Graham, Jr.  (Special Representative of the President for Arms Control, Nonproliferation and Disarmament, 1994-1997)


When considering the Iran issue, one should remember that Iran has been pursuing nuclear weapons for many decades.  Iran began making plans for a large nuclear infrastructure under the former Shah in the 1970s.  Ultimately, Iran hoped to build treaty power reactors, or perhaps even more, making it a major player in the world nuclear industry.  Many years later that this program was linked to a quest for the capability to break out and quickly acquire nuclear weapons was confirmed by one of the Shah’s former foreign ministers.

Why would Iran want nuclear weapons?  The motivations of the Islamic Republic today are of course, different than those under the Shah, but the radically different regimes share one common and compelling reason for pursuing the bomb:  international prestige.  Since early in the Cold War, the possession of nuclear weapons has distinguished great powers from other states.   Iran is a proud county.  The Persian cultural heritage is one of the richest in world civilization.  The Islamic Republic certainly has other motivations for being interested in the bomb but in the view of many Iranians most likely is that Iran deserves to be a great power and thus has a right to acquire nuclear weapons.

While Iran continues to assert that its program is peaceful, aimed only at nuclear power, the entire history of the program appears to tell a different story.  Beginning with the Shah in the 1970s there was an interest in the prestige and power associated with nuclear weapons.  When Ayatollah Khomeini disavowed an interest in nuclear weapons, the reactor program was put on the shelf, when Iranian policy changed, the reactor program was revived.   The Pakistani official A.Q. Khan was not known as a promoter of nuclear power; he was selling nuclear weapon capability. Iran had a nearly twenty-year clandestine relationship with Khan and acquired from him uranium enrichment technology and possibly the design of a Chinese nuclear weapon.

There are other indicia, such as the many links of the Iranian nuclear program to the military, the domination of the program by the Revolutionary Guards, as well as constantly changing explanations and the destruction of evidence and buildings before inspections.  So until a nuclear explosive test removes all doubt, or until a deal can be reached that satisfies all sides, one must prudently assume that the Iranian objective is, in fact, nuclear weapons or at least the achievement of a nuclear weapon capability from which status weapons could quickly be produced if desired.

What does this mean for policy for the international community?  The period for truly effective negotiations with Iran appears to have been in the 2001-2003 period and likely ended after the United States refused to address the comprehensive proposal presented by Iran in the spring of 2003.  Since that date Iranian negotiating policy seems to have been largely tactical in nature.  The current negotiations between the Five Permanent Members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, led by Caroline Ashton of the European Union, and Iran initially appeared promising but now seen to be stalled.

Sanctions have not changed Iranian behavior.  The latest Security Council sanctions, adopted in June, 2012, also do not appear to have changed Iranian behavior.  According to the State Department new additional European and American sanctions have driven down Iranian oil exports by 40 to 50 percent but there is a potential weakness in this continuing effort, Iran’s increasingly skillful operations to bypass sanctions by selling its oil through foreign banks or for alternative means of payment like gold.  The U.S. Congress, backed by President Obama plans to adopt even tougher sanctions in the near future.  As reported in the Washington Post on August 1st, Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies said that the new sanctions represent a “major upgrade”.  But he noted that the objective of the sanctions effort is to change the political calculations of the Iranian leadership so as to increase pressure to the point that Iran agrees to resolve concerns about its nuclear program.  However, Mr. Dubowitz observed that “There is no evidence to date that the sanctions have achieved that objective.”

The military option does not seem practical either.  Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has said that a military attack would only delay the Iranian program “by a few years.”   Likely any such attack would be costly politically in much of the Middle East and Iranian retaliation against potentially vulnerable U.S. assets, in the Persian Gulf for example, could be severe.  To accomplish anything more than a temporary delay would appear to require something truly massive, for example perhaps a month or more of sustained bombing, followed by an invasion by Special Forces or mainline military units.  In the wake of the Iran war and gradual withdrawal from Afghanistan this seems unlikely to happen.

All of this being the case, perhaps the best policy of the international community would be to try to continue negotiations, while also pursuing various means of disruption and delay of the Iranian program, and play for time.  Time is on our side, as the Iranian leadership well knows, the Iranian people are overwhelmingly middle-class, well educated, desirous of a democratic society and pro-West.  In any event, Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons, or even a nuclear weapon capability, under current circumstances, would create many international complications.  Since the primary cause of all this is the unremitting hostility of successive Islamic Republic governments toward everything Western, maybe someday all this will cease, Iran will become more of a country than a cause, and these sorts of calculations will no longer need to be made.