The approval of fresh sanctions on Iran marks the third time that the United Nations Security Council has been galvanized to stem the Islamic Republic’s feared uranium enrichment efforts. Unfortunately, the new sanctions are unlikely to be any more effective than the first two rounds.
Consider the two earlier Security Council resolutions. The December 2006 resolution curbed international assistance to Iran in mastering the nuclear fuel cycle. The March 2007 resolution called for “vigilance and restraint in the sale of heavy weapons to Iran and avoidance of new grants, financial assistance, or concessional loans. Neither moved the country’s ruling mullahs. Few expect a different outcome from the new sanctions, which authorize international interception of Iranian contraband and tightened monitoring of the regime’s financial institutions, along with travel limitations and asset freezes applied to people and companies involved in Iran’s nuclear program.
The failure of targeted UN sanctions should come as no surprise. The US has been on the sanctions treadmill for years. Between 2003 and 2007 the US Treasury Department brought litigation against 94 companies for violating the ban against trade and investment in Iran. The State Department imposed sanctions 111 times against foreign entities that engaged in proliferation or terrorism-related activities with Iran. And both departments have used their power to freeze financial assets or access to the US financial system.
The results amounted to little more than a pin prick. Iran’s nuclear programs continued to be financed by international commerce. In 1994, Iran exported $37 billion in goods; by 2007, the figure had nearly doubled, to $70 billion. In roughly the same period, Iran’s imports also soared, from $22 billion in 1994 to $45 billion in 2006.
Evaluating two decades of US sanctions to curb Iran’s nuclear appetite, the US Congress’s Government Accountability Office recently concluded that the results are “unclear, adding with candid obliqueness that “some evidence, such as foreign firms signing contracts to invest in Iran’s energy and Iran’s continued proliferation efforts, raise questions about the extent of the sanctions’ impact.
Not only have sanctions failed to halt Iran’s fuel cycle programs, but so have other avenues. The European Union’s multiple offers of political and economic inducements went nowhere, as did cajoling by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
To be sure Iran offered, in 2005 and subsequently, to tether its program to international co-management, which arguably could have placed resident international monitors on site. But both the international community and Iran failed to follow through, and now that opportunity has increasingly become moot as Iranian engineers gain confidence in their handiwork.
Some hope that the next US administration can stem Iran’s nuclear ambitions through bilateral diplomacy. But Europe’s negotiating experience raises doubts about that prospect, as Iran remains unequivocal about never abandoning its nuclear fuel cycle program.
Assuming that concern over Iran’s nuclear “breakout capacity mounts, this leaves the US and its allies with three options, each with its own risks. First, a naval blockade (reminiscent of the Cuban missile crisis) that halted both Iran’s oil exports and imports of refined fuel would cripple the country’s economy. But the US military would have to be able to prevent Iran from closing the Strait of Hormuz, through which much of the world’s oil supply passes. A halt in Iran’s oil exports alone would dramatically upset international oil markets, and the Iranian leadership would likely dig in its heels to continue, if not accelerate, nuclear development.
Second, while a military strike would slow Iran’s nuclear program, facilities could be rebuilt in the absence of inspectors to find and destroy remnants, regime change, and/or military occupation. Moreover, the attack shock could trigger Iranian vengeance regionally and elsewhere, with a global economic impact far exceeding that implied by a blockade.
This leaves an unsettling fallback option. An Iran on the cusp of becoming a nuclear-armed state confronting a nuclear-armed Israel bringing its bomb out of the basement. In that event, there remains the hope that mutual nuclear deterrence will promote mutual common sense. Absent a dramatic improvement in the Middle East’s grim political landscape, the failure of deterrence would bring the sum of all the fears of our nuclear age upon us.
Bennett Ramberg, the author of three books on international security, served in the US State Department’s Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs during the George H. W. Bush administration. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org).