To this point, the U.S. administration and the rest of the international community has responded to the perceived threat of a nuclear Iran with diplomacy and economic sanctions.
President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made their pitches for and against the effectiveness of sanctions, respectively, at this month’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference. More recently, satellite images of an Iranian military facility appeared to show trucks and earth-moving vehicles at the site that indicate an attempted cleanup of radioactive traces possibly left by tests of a nuclear-weapon trigger.
With these words and pictures both in mind, the following questions have come to the fore: Are sanctions an effective tool for curbing the behavior of the Iranian regime? How much time is actually left for the world to curb that behavior before Iran strikes? Finally, does America’s “red line” for pre-emptive military action against Iran come when Iran develops nuclear “capability,” or when Iran actually has nuclear weapons?
Not surprisingly, the answers of relevant analysts, legislators, and other officials vary.
Do Iran sanctions work?
Netanyahu told AIPAC delegates March 5 that the world “can’t wait much longer” for Iran to end its endeavor to produce nuclear weapons, and also stressed the following: “For the past decade the international community has tried diplomacy; it hasn’t worked. For six years, the international community has tried sanctions, that hasn’t worked either.”
Obama presented a sharp contrast to Netanyahu’s statements at a White House press conference March 6. The president said Iran “is feeling the bite” of sanctions “in a substantial way,” and described a “window of opportunity where this can still be resolved diplomatically.”
“When push comes to shove, Netanyahu wants to make sure that Israel operates on an Israeli timetable and chances of an Israeli strike now seem more likely than I thought a week ago,” David Makovsky, director of the Project of Middle East Peace at the Washington Institute, said in a recent teleconference. “There has been no change in the fact that Obama is focusing on [Iranian] weaponry and Netanyahu is focusing on capability.”
Regarding the direction of America’s sanctions strategy, U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA)—ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade—told JointMedia News Service during a private meeting at the AIPAC conference that tougher sanctions than the current ones are needed.
Sherman said Iran sanctions should be bolstered regardless of perceived risk to the domestic or global economy, because the risk of a nuclear Iran is far greater.
“Hard, strict sanctions that impact everyday life in Iran could encourage its people to choose between regime survival and its nuclear program,” Sherman said.
Larry Greenfield, executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), told JointMedia News Service that sanctions “have not worked to end the [Iranian] threat” but “may be working to put pressure on the Iranian government or economy.”
“Iran has threatened, Iran has continued to act as a bad actor, and Iran has not slowed down, frozen, halted or reversed its nuclear programs,” Greenfield said.
“Sanctions needs a partner,” he said. “The partner of sanctions is the credible threat of military force to effectuate the national policy of both America and Israel that Iran will not be allowed to weaponize.”
Massachusetts State Treasurer Steven Grossman, the former president of AIPAC, told JointMedia News Service he cannot say to a “certainty” that sanctions are going to keep Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. However, Grossman believes “squeezing Iran little by little, in the oil area, in the natural gas area, in the importation of refined petroleum products” is a strategy that has merit.
“Squeezing the ability of the central bank of Iran to do business in international markets, it’s never going to work unless everybody participates, and if the Chinese and the Russians and others don’t participate, obviously there are holes in the sanctions and those holes are problematic,” Grossman said, “but I still think it is up to the United States, the European countries and others to use whatever sanctions we have available to us to put as much pressure on Iran as we can, recognizing that they are only one tool of many, and in and of themselves they will not prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.”
Emanuel Ottolenghi, senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said sanctions might actually work in favor of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which has a monopoly on smuggling in the country. Therefore, as sanctions increase the need for smuggling within the Iranian economy, the regime’s radical actors are bolstered domestically.
“Those people who are in power [in Iran] will actually enrich themselves even more [because of sanctions],” Ottolenghi said during an AIPAC conference breakout session.
The future of America’s Iran strategy
Sherman, the California congressman, warned that Iran could provoke a series of events “even more dangerous” than the Cuban Missile Crisis “because the Islamic regime lacks the sanity of the United States and Russia, [and] the Iranians could use nuclear weapons against Israel or the United States to gain what it perceives as street credibility in its attempt to gain hegemony in the region.”
Regarding Iran’s threat to close the Strait of Hormuz, U.S. Rep. Steve Rothman (D-NJ) said during an AIPAC breakout session that, “I’m not going to tell you where [America has] what, but we’ve got lots of assets that would respond.”
“There is danger there, but the Iranians would have to make the calculation that they would be willing to withstand the response from the U.S., which hopefully would be quite devastating,” Rothman said.
Grossman, the Massachusetts treasurer, said he was encouraged to hear “very, very significant overlap between the deepest concerns and the statements” Obama and Netanyahu made at the AIPAC conference, and noted Obama’s acknowledgement of Israel’s sovereign right to defend itself.
“Whether the United States advises Israel or not as to being cautious, that doesn’t mean at the end of the day that Israel does not have the sovereign right to defend itself,” Grossman said.
JINSA’s Greenfield says his organization “positively agrees with the statements of both Israeli and American leadership that the governments move forward both in coordination and consultation, as well as appropriately discreet planning and discussion.”
“It is our assumption that, per usual…both militaries are organized to present to their national political leadership a range of options for potential pre-emption and both governments at the highest levels have ruled out an Iranian nuclear weapon,” Greenfield said.
However, Greenfield stressed that what continues to hover over the Iranian issue is the debate about the “red line” for military pre-emption: Does the U.S. strike when Iran is capable of weaponizing, or when Iran has the actual weapons?
“The point the Israelis are making is: only a sufficiently prepared and committed policy orientation, that disallows Iranian nuclear weapons, has the chance to get Iran to pull back on its program,” he said.
—With reporting by Maxine Dovere
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