New Year’s Day has come and gone, and the government of Iran has failed to meet the Obama Administration’s deadline for entering into serious negotiations regarding its nuclear weapons program. In fact, the Iranian Foreign Minister escalated the confrontation, warning that if the West did not accept Teheran’s proposal to swap its spent nuclear fuel for new fuel his country would expand its enrichment activities. “This is an ultimatum,” the foreign minister was reported to have said.
Iranian intransigence has finally removed the blinders from the eyes of senior administration officials with respect to Iranian intentions. According to the recent news reports, senior national security officials now are convinced that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons capability. I would assume that part of the reason for their new-found pessimism is information coming from the intelligence community. This would be a welcome change following the badly flawed 2007 National Intelligence Estimate which concluded that the Iranian government had halted efforts to develop nuclear weapons. Administration officials say that the intelligence community missed signs that the program had continued, albeit at a lower level of intensity. Administration officials are now said to believe that they have a window of between 18 months and three years in which to halt the Iranian program.
The White House is reportedly prepared to pursue new economic and travel sanctions against Iranian entities and government officials associated with the nuclear program. The targets of the sanctions include the Islamic Revolutionary Guard which is said to be in control of the Iranian nuclear weapons program. This approach may have secondary benefits, some believe, because it also may weaken the Iranian regime’s principal organ for repressing that country’s ongoing political reform movement. At the same time, the administration is still taking a cautious, arms-length approach to the pro-democracy movement in Iran, fearing that to fully embrace it would make it impossible to achieve a negotiated resolution to the nuclear issue.
The history of western-imposed sanctions on rogue regimes does not offer a positive testimonial as to their ability to change a target’s strongly held commitments and objectives. In many instances, sanctions have been shown to reinforce the target regime’s resolve as well as its control over its people. The Obama Administration is said to believe that the continuing democratic opposition in Iran places the government in Teheran between a rock and a hard place, and that targeted sanctions could weaken its ability to suppress its domestic opponents.
In reality, the administration has its strategy backwards. Sanctions have never been successful at changing the behavior of an authoritarian regime. Increased pressure may weaken the Iranian government but it also will harden its resolve. It might even provoke a violent repression of the anti-government demonstrators. The Iranian nuclear program will be halted only when the regime in Teheran falls. The path to that goal is through the pro-democracy movement. A positive strategy of supporting the pro-democracy movement will prove a more potent weapon against the authoritarian regime and its nuclear ambitions than sanctions ever could.
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