Both parties in the forthcoming US election promise tough sanctions and threaten war against Iran. But even accounting for Tehran’s provocations the US agenda is counter-productive and cruel. The Iranian regime must be allowed to save face if conflict is to be averted.
The Democratic Party platform, adopted at the National Convention, on 4 September stated that, if reelected President Obama would pursue the “the toughest UN sanctions ever on Iran.” It is unsurprising that the sentiment of this statement is so similar to (though slightly less bizarre than) those expressed by the Republican Party. However, what is remarkable is not that both ape each other’s positions so closely on the issue of Iran; rather it is the fact that even now the US and Iran – with Israel playing the role of a wildcard – appear locked into the same collision course that was set long before the beginning of Obama’s first term, when Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to office in 2005. However, the US is still the only superpower in the game and therefore it is incumbent upon it to try a different tack if tensions are to be cooled.
There is little doubt that Tehran is breaking its agreements on non-proliferation but the West’s preferred strategy of threats of military action supported by crippling sanctions leaves the regime with little room for maneuver. On 30 August the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) released an updated report that highlighted specific and troubling concerns that Iran has managed to increase capacity at the Fordow Enrichment Plant, near Qom. The same report also detailed the fact that satellite reconnaissance had observed a sudden increase in activity since February at the Parchin military complex, 30 km from Tehran which houses a temporary facility designed to “conduct hydrodynamic experiments”, which are consistent with tests of nuclear weapon primaries.
The nature of the activity at Parchin – which includes the demolition of certain structures, the appearance of “large amounts of liquid ‘run off’” and the emergence of a “pink material” which partially obscured later satellite images – suggests efforts to cleanse the site, perhaps after conducting experiments. Iran refuses to allow IAEA observers access to the site and denies these claims. But it is the alleged increase in capacity at Fordow that is really worrying Iran’s observers – particular in Israel – who note that the facility is buried deep underground, under some 60-90 metres of rock, which would make it very difficult to destroy if attacked from the air.
Iran refuted the implication of these reports immediately, but it was not convincing. Kazem Jalali, a member of the foreign relations committee of the Iranian Parliament, claimed that the timing of the announcement – during the Tehran summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) – was intended to embarrass the regime. Iran took the opportunity provided by the 16th summit of the NAM on 30-31 August, to criticise the West as Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, condemned the UN security council and US and its allies as “hegemonic and bullying states”.
Red lines and sanctions
Efforts to reach a diplomatic solution to the nuclear crisis have flagged, as the frustration of P5+1 talks in May in Baghdad was followed by failure in Moscow in June. On 2 September, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, in a thinly-veiled berating of Barak Obama at the height of the US political conference season, said that the ‘international community’ must confront Iran with “clear red lines” that would act as a justification to attack, if Iran continued its nuclear development. Various observers have cast doubt on Israel’s ability to undertake such a strike unilaterally, and criticism of the plan has also come from within its own military establishment. It has been suggested that the Netanyahu administration understands the need to hedge on the support from US military and it sees the pre-election scrutiny of Obama as potentially advantageous in this respect. This makes November a deadline of sorts. At the same time Israel has been the main driver behind further sanctions on Iran in Europe and elsewhere.
These new sanctions come on top of the “targeted” sanctions imposed by the US after the election of Ahmadinejad and a range of other multi-lateral and bilateral financial restrictions imposed on Iran since the Islamic revolution in 1979.
Over the long run these methods have clearly proved ineffective: the Islamic republic still stands, it is still pursuing nuclear enrichment and the particular vitriol reserved for Ahmadinejad in the West may have even strengthened his hand against internal rivals – including the Supreme Leader. Moreover, as recent exposés of two major British-multinational banks, HSBC and Standard Chartered, have revealed, these sanctions have been routinely ignored or circumvented. Even the US’s Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, has admitted that they have not caused Iran to waver from its current course.
Yet Panetta’s response is to double down on a losing strategy. Back on 30 July – one month before the IAEA report – he told reporters in Tunisia “these sanctions are having a serious impact in terms of the economy of Iran” and that Iran had a renewed interest in negotiations so it is therefore necessary to “continue the pressure on Iran”.
Impact of Sanctions
Despite this, Panetta is right about one thing. The new wave of sanctions is having a deleterious effect on Iran’s economy – which is, at the same time, undergoing dramatic reforms of its own. On 25 June the European Union (EU) banned third-party insurance for the transport of Iranian oil. According to Opec this hit Iran’s oil production hard. It dropped to 2.8 m barrels per day in July and 4 September President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had admitted, “There are some problems in selling oil and we are trying to manage it”. The International Monetary Fund has also predicted that inflation will reach 21% in 2012, and that between September 2011 and January 2012 the Rial plummeted possibly by as much as 71%.
Beijing had appeared to offer some hope for Tehran, as China had maintained its interest in Iran’s Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) development projects in the North and South Pars, Ferdosi and Golshan gas fields. However, under pressure from Washington, Chinese interest in Iran diminished. In particular China National Petroleum Corporation – a state owned integrated energy company – has backed out of a $4.7bn development in South Pars.
The cruelest aspect of the current strategy, though, is in effects on the weak and most vulnerable. In a recent report the Financial Times stated that as a result of the sanctions: “cancer patients and those being treated for complex disorders such as haemophilia, multiple sclerosis and thalassaemia, as well as transplant and kidney dialysis patients, none of whom can afford interruptions or delays in medical supplies.”
This report comes less than a month since earthquakes struck near Tabriz, in the East Azerbaijan region which claimed some 300 lives injuring 5,000 and displacing around 36,000. They affected more than 1,000 villages according to a Red Crescent official, Ahmad Reza Shaji’i. The US waited some ten days before allowing a partial lifting of the sanctions in order to permit international aid into the country. The delay meant that Iranian rescue workers were unable to access night-vision goggles that could have helped more effective searching for survivors.
From the perspective of Iran, the US’ rhetoric increases Iranian mistrust of the West. The Stuxnet computer virus and Israel’s murder of Iranian scientists – sometimes by militant Pakistani proxies – are just two recent examples from a long list that begins with the ousting of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953 by the CIA. Informing Iran’s strategic calculus the US has it surrounded militarily, invaded and occupied two of its neighboring states and – through providing succor to the opponents of Bashar al-Asad – it is allowing one of the regime’s most powerful allies to bleed out. Thus by now there can be little doubt that Iran is convinced that the West’s real agenda is regime change.
In this context it is likely that this will lead to even deeper intractability, as any acknowledgment of fault will be tantamount to humiliation (particularly if a climb-down is forced on the regime by the US and Israel both of which have nuclear weapons of their own). Given the limited array of options then, Tehran’s ruling class may believe that the best role model in this strategic paradigm is North Korea, a state that has routinely snubbed the West yet remained unchallenged militarily since the 1950s. North Korea has been a nuclear weapon state probably since 2006 and is the only remaining member of Bush’s ‘axis of evil’ not to have faced the realistic threat of a US military strike. In short, the more the US and its allies push the Iranian regime into a corner the more it makes sense for Tehran to pursue atomic weaponry as the ultimate insurance policy.
A way out?
However, the Iran-US face off need not necessarily be a zero-sum-game. If both sides can dial down both their rhetoric and their expectations, it is possible that movement away from this highly volatile situation is possible, even though this unlikely to equate to progress towards any stable end state of friendly relations. There have already been examples of how this could work. The most prominent of these was the 2010 deal between Turkey, Brazil and Iran that, though far from perfect, could have proved a useful stepping stone in building confidence and some modicum of trust on both sides.
But even if new attempts are promoted through intermediate countries such as Turkey, the US remains the ultimate decision maker and therefore it is President Obama’s personal reputation that is at stake. Such is the divisive nature of US politics today there will be few in his own party, never mind the Republicans, who would applaud the president for taking a softer line. But if re-elected for a second term, the president will never have to face another test of public opinion and will be invulnerable to such political attacks.
In such a context the right path for the president is clear. He must abandon this pre-election posturing and risk potential short-term embarrassment even if there is only a small chance that progress can be made to avert military action. The precise pay off of doing so is obviously inestimable, but could mean saving hundreds of thousands of lives and could, albeit probably in a limited way, restore some of the US’ reputation that has been lost as a result of its other wars in the region.
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