The West’s standoff with the Iranian regime over its illicit nuclear activities simultaneously grows simpler and more vexatious. It grows simpler as we reach a more and more certain judgment about the regime’s intentions vis-à-vis its nuclear program; it grows more vexatious as the terrifying nature of that judgment crystallizes, and as our hopes that the West’s leaders possess strategic wisdom and moral courage sufficient to cope with its implications wane.
The latest development is that Iran will break its promise — made in its most recent negotiations with the West’s powers of note — to export much of its uranium for enrichment abroad. Its fulfillment of this promise would hardly have been a victory for us: There would still have been every reason to think it was secretly developing an atomic bomb alongside its “civilian” activities, and the Iranian regime would still have been able to enrich the uranium further after its foreign custodians returned it (having done the favor of getting it closer to weaponizable levels).
Barack Obama sold this deal as a triumph of his brand of diplomacy. He had to. He had campaigned for the presidency vowing not to allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, but in office had preferred a group-therapy approach, effectively apologizing for the provocations of his big bad predecessor and striving to “engage” the theocrat mullahs. He was then caught off-guard by discovery of their second, secret enrichment facility at Qom and tried to recover by talking up the uranium-export plan as though it counted for something.
This PR ploy has now backfired, with geostrategic implications. By calling the West’s bluff, the mullahs have undermined the credibility, before all parties, of those major powers that are assumed to be hawkishly disposed to them (the U.S., Great Britain, and, to a lower degree, France) and, to themselves, demonstrated once again that there is no consequence for broken promises.
Is there to be no consequence? That is the question before the president and other heads of state. Again he is talking a good game, saying that he is in discussion with U.S. “allies” about the “consequences” the mullahs will now face. And what might these be?
There is always the Security Council, that body which in six and a half years has failed to take a single decisive step, instead watering down each sanctions resolution just enough to keep it from threatening the regime. Then there are the steps America, acting unilaterally or with various “coalitions of the willing,” could take. Exhortations to many steps are found aggregated in a bill that has just emerged from Chris Dodd’s Senate Banking Committee. This legislation would target Iranian gasoline supplies — despite its oil wealth, the country has too little refining capacity to meet its needs — by sanctioning companies that invest significantly in or export significantly to the Iranian energy sector. It would expand the scope of the long-ago enacted (and, beginning with the Clinton presidency, unenforced) Iran Sanctions Act. It would tighten asset seizures and sanctions against regime leaders, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and businesses that transact with them. And it would do a number of other things to make life marginally harder for Messrs. Khamenei and Ahmadinejad.
They are worth doing. They would inflict economic problems of unpredictable degree on Iran, further destabilizing its internal politics and undermining the position of its rulers. But the rulers are clever. Already they are working — with Chinese cooperation — to expand Iran’s domestic refining capacity, and they could, at non-prohibitive cost, retool the gasoline-consuming elements of their economy to run instead on natural gas, their reserves of which are vast. So it is probably unrealistic to expect that the Senate bill’s measures would compel the regime into submission. For that matter, it may be unrealistic even to hope Obama would execute the Senate’s intentions. The bill includes a provision that allows him to waive the sanctions if he judges doing so to be in the national-security interests of the United States (which is to say, if he feels like it).
The alternative, other than letting the Iranian regime build its arsenal, would be a massive bombing campaign against its nuclear sites. Such a campaign would come at great cost to the West. It would, in fact, constitute a massive failure on the West’s part: a failure to have imposed sanctions of consequence, and to have threatened force credibly, in time to obviate the need for force’s actual use. It would not be sufficient to prevent the regime from acquiring nuclear weapons down the line, and would at best probably delay the acquisition by a number of years that could be counted on the fingers of one hand.
All of this notwithstanding, if the choice is between a nuclear Iran and a bombing campaign that delays a nuclear Iran’s advent while making it less probable in absolute terms, the latter may be the better alternative. But it is a choice the West must make. If military action is not to be taken, then our intellectual and material resources should be focused instead on developing and implementing the most effective possible containment strategy. The worst outcome would be the testing of an Iranian atomic bomb while the West is still in “Let’s engage” mode.
It is not quite the hour to make this choice. The exhaustion of efforts to impose serious sanctions is a necessary prelude. But those efforts should have a defined endpoint. If the Qom revelation and Iran’s subsequent deal-breaking are insufficient to motivate, in the short term, the passage of highly punitive sanctions with enough international support (meaning that of Moscow and Beijing) to guarantee their efficacy, then nothing is likely to motivate their passage, ever. President Obama should make it his goal to force a decision more than to secure passage of this or that sanctions resolution.
Given that leaders of geostrategic wisdom far superior to his, commanding positions of peerless economic and military strength, sat idly for years while the crisis metastasized, we feel no excess of hope.