And so, the Middle East is nearing a strategic crossroads. Within the next eighteen months or so, the decisions taken by different actors will affect issues far beyond the area itself. And time is running out for such decisions. Last year’s discovery of a covert enrichment plant near Qum is probably only the tip of the iceberg; significantly, the IAEA recently openly accused Tehran of developing nuclear weapons, for the first time in its dealings with Iran. Many experts now estimate that the country is at most 1-2 years away from acquiring a functioning nuclear device. And, judging from the regime’s increasingly defiant tone, it has no intention whatsoever to depart from its stated policy of becoming a ‘nuclear nation’ – one that has mastered a sufficient share of civilian nuclear technology to put nuclear weapons well within its grasp.
As time runs out, and the Obama administration definitively gives up on its short-lived attempt at dialogue with Tehran, attention will again shift to the United Nations Security Council, starting with renewed Western attempts to impose sanctions on the Iranian regime in coming weeks and months. Proposals on the table include various restrictions on institutions and persons connected with the regime, and in particular, its core support base in the Revolutionary Guard. But significantly, recent statements have been shifting towards a whole-scale embargo on Iran’s oil industry – blocking Iranian imports of refined fuels (which it cannot produce itself) and technical supplies, and perhaps also blocking oil exports from Iran – with other producers making up for the shortfall.
A two-fold question arises, however. Firstly, whether such sanctions would be approved by all veto-wielding UNSC members – especially Russia and China. And, secondly, whether such sanctions would at all work. The historical evidence is stacked against both these aforementioned possibilities. Russia and China have a long track record of being reluctant in imposing sanctions on regimes deemed ‘rogue’ by the United States and the West. Both also have serious misgivings about the effectiveness of sanctions in general, and in Iran’s particular case – having described them as ‘counterproductive’ on numerous occasions. While no-one – including Moscow and Beijing – would be interested in the serious damage a nuclear Iran could cause to regional stability and the NPT, both these great powers do have interests in Iran that would be affected directly by a UNSC decision to that effect. Russia is a major trading partner; China has invested heavily in Iran’s oil industry in recent years.
Any imposition of sanctions would therefore involve considerable horse-trading, and, probable linkages with other issues that affect great power relations today – with Moscow and Beijing trying to extract Western concessions in matters not necessarily connected to Iran in return for cutting themselves in the flesh. This does not exclude the possibility of sanctions being ultimately pushed through at the right price. Russia’s position, in particular, has begun to shift in recent weeks, with the foreign ministry expressing ‘alarm’ at the prospect of a nuclear Iran, and Russian defence contractors delaying the delivery of the state-of-the-art S-300 anti-aircraft missile system to the Islamic Republic, ostensibly for ‘technical reasons’. Still, Moscow has made tough noises in the past, only to break with its Western counterparts – and China is maintaining its traditional line emphasising the importance of a negotiated settlement.
But even if tough sanctions came into force, their effect would be highly ambiguous: the historical track record of sanctions (be they of the smart or, if you will, ‘dumb’ variety) is highly dubious. Even in cases around the world where they have had the time to affect elites, economies and societies, they have usually not achieved their desired result in terms of changing regime behaviour. The luxury of time is certainly absent in the case of Iran, and the kind of sanctions that are currently being advocated might end up accelerating rather than stopping its nuclear programme. Past and current embargoes on dual-use technology may hamper Iran’s nuclear quest from the supply side – but, ultimately, its drivers on the demand side remain unaddressed: nuclear weapons, once acquired, are a watertight guarantee of regime security from external threat. This is, and will remain the primary driver of Iran’s nuclear ambitions in the foreseeable future, sanctions or no sanctions.
Some have clung on to the idea that an oil embargo would bring about the current regime’s downfall. Certainly, a whole-scale boycott of Iranian petroleum products would hurt Iran’s oil-dependent economy in an unprecedented way, undermining Iran’s ability to provide for its population. This line of thinking, however, makes three highly uncertain assumptions. Firstly, regime change would be dependent on the regime losing control; instead, an embargo may very well give its hardliners carte blanche for even bloodier repression than has been seen up to now in the name of ‘national security’. Secondly, the assumption is also that Iran would sit still and take such a development quietly. The odds are, however, of a response; there is certainly no lack of opportunities in that sense – Hamas and Hezbollah come to mind, but Iraq, Afghanistan and Hormuz are also definite possibilities should the regime be pressed into a corner.
The third assumption is that the regime would fall before it actually managed to obtain ‘the bomb’. But if anything, an oil embargo might increase the demand-side factor in Tehran’s nuclear quest - and North Korea has clearly shown how the dynamics of inter-state interaction change before and after nuclearisation. Before it, regime destabilisation remains an option; after it, it becomes a folly. Among the “international community’s” greatest contemporary nightmares are those of a destabilised North Korea and Pakistan. Iran probably knows a destabilised nuclear Iran would potentially strike equal fear into Western policymakers’ hearts, probably more so than a stable nuclear Iran - all the more reason to obtain the bomb quickly, for once you cross the nuclear threshold, the kinds of sanctions that actually engender regime change become irrational, providing ample opportunity for brinkmanship.
If one assumes sanctions to be either unattainable or ineffective, the choice becomes one between the two evils of nuclear deterrence and military action – and it is not a straightforward one to make. The views of nuclear deterrence as a regional stabiliser are controversial at best; they also come at the price of either abandoning the NPT to its fate as nukes proliferate freely in the region, or of the United States extending its nuclear umbrella, not to mention the incomparable consequences of potential deterrence failure. The military option, on the other hand, would carry with it the certainty of regional destabilisation, probably with global repercussions, and great uncertainty in terms of its chances for success. In the absence of good intelligence (a rare commodity indeed), military strikes would at best delay Iran’s nuclear capability.
But this is exactly what might make the military option a more rational (or less irrational) choice in combination with sanctions. If embargoes are perceived to take long time to work, a hit on Iran’s nuclear facilities might be seen as extending the possibility for sanctions to work, even if it only ends up delaying its nuclearisation. Considering the fact that Israel, as a ‘free agent’ might actually be both able and willing to carry out such strikes, it becomes clear to what extent this is a situation fraught with danger. And in view of all the certainties and potentialities involved, it seems the next few years will be undesirably interesting for all.
[This article is also due to be published in the upcoming issue of The Majalla]