Sanctions Alone Won’t Stop Iran
Diplomacy and economic pressure need to be backed up by a big stick.


Clifford D. May

First, the good news: Sanctions have helped drive Iran’s currency to its lowest level ever, half its value from a year ago. Meanwhile, Iran’s oil exports are down almost 45 percent in July, the most recent month for which data are available.

The bad news: Iran’s rulers are as determined as ever to develop nuclear weapons that they intend to use to dominate the Middle East, weaken America (“Satan incarnate”), and wipe Israel off the map. “New and significant intelligence” received by the International Atomic Energy Agency suggests Iran is closer than ever to acquiring the ability to build nuclear weapons.

Few advocates of sanctions expected that Iran’s rulers — men possessed of a radical ideology and grand ambitions — would easily or quickly be convinced that acquiring nukes is more trouble than it’s worth. There was a chance: In 1988, then — Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini reluctantly agreed to a ceasefire with Iraq, owing, it is widely believed, to the economic crisis brought on by the conflict and the peril that it posed to the survival of his Islamic Revolution.

There are no indications that sanctions at present levels have brought Iran’s current rulers anywhere near that point. What sanctions have done is end business as usual with the world’s most threatening regime, and link Iran’s crimes to more than just rhetorical consequences. By no other means was Iran going to be singled out or isolated — certainly not by the U.N., the Non-Aligned Movement, or other organs of the so-called international community.

Iran is feeling severe economic pain. In July 2011, Iran’s oil profits were $9.8 billion. In July of this year: $2.9 billion, according to a report prepared by the Rhodium Group, highly respected oil-industry analysts. Separately, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the think tank I head, prepared a report almost a year ago on the impact of sanctions on the oil market. It correctly predicted about a 40 percent drop in Iranian oil sales — with no significant rise in global oil prices as a result.

Sanctions have been controversial and that, too, has proved beneficial: It has shined a light on Iran’s ideology, policies, and actions at a time when most journalists reporting from Iran are either credulous or sympathetic to the regime. (To be anything else is hazardous to your health.)

Over time, reality has been sinking in. Despite a vigorous propaganda effort by Iran’s apologists, 80 percent of Americans believe the regime’s nuclear program menaces the U.S. and its NATO allies, according to a poll taken this summer.

Last week, Canada closed its embassy in Iran, gave Iranian diplomats in Canada five days to pack up and leave, and formally designated Iran a “state sponsor of terrorism.” A government statement was unequivocal: “Canada views the Government of Iran as the most significant threat to global peace and security in the world today.” The Iranian response was typical: A spokesman for Iran’s foreign ministry called the Canadian government “racist.”

In an editorial last week, the Washington Post, hardly a conservative or hawkish newspaper, said that “if Mr. Obama really is determined to take military action if Iran takes decisive steps toward producing a bomb, such as enriching uranium to bomb-grade levels or expelling inspectors, he would be wise to say so publicly. Doing so would improve relations with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and deter unilateral Israeli action — and it might well convince Iran that the time has come to compromise.”

Exactly: The soft talk of diplomacy and the relatively small stick of sanctions need to be buttressed by a big stick — a credible warning that force will be used should peaceful options prove insufficient.