Sunday, January 2, 2011

Confronting Iran: An Intermediate Approach

For the United States and Israel, Iran’s nuclear program is reaching an especially critical phase. Eight years after Iranian dissidents in London publicly revealed information detailing Iran’s covert nuclear program, the rogue state shows no signs of backing down on its nuclear activities. Indeed, this August, with Russian help, Iran’s first nuclear power plant, Bushehr, became operational. While Iran insists that the plant is only for generating electricity, the plant will also reportedly produce plutonium, which can be used in a nuclear warhead, as a byproduct. This new development comes even as Iran utilizes facilities at Natanz, Qum, and elsewhere to enrich uranium, inching ever closer towards nuclear breakout.

This past July, the United Nations passed the toughest round of sanctions yet against Iran, and the United States and the European Union added sanctions of their own. The UN sanctions focus on targeting financial institutions doing business related to Iran’s nuclear weapons program or with certain branches of the Iranian ruling elite, particularly the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and the US and EU sanctions target additional areas, such as technological assistance.

Few expect the new sanctions to force change in Iran’s behavior, however. The UN sanctions, although stronger than previous ones, fall well short of being crippling, due to opposition from Russia and China, two of Iran’s main trading partners. US sanctions target shipments of gasoline – perhaps the commodity most vulnerable to sanctions due Iran’s extremely limited refining capacity. However, China and Russia have refused to take similar action, severely weakening any impact the US measures could have. Even many Obama administration officials are conceding that voiced pessimism; as CIA Director Leon Panetta remarked, “Will [the sanctions] deter them [Iran]from their ambitions with regards to nuclear capability? Probably not.”
As Iran’s nuclear program proceeds forward, the United States faces a set of difficult options. It could try to forcibly remove Iran’s nuclear program – both to ensure regional security and punish Iran for so long defying the international community – or work to contain Iran so as to counteract the additional regional leverage a nuclear weapons program would afford that nation. Neither is by any means a slam dunk, and both would fundamentally alter the Middle East. In addition, there is the very real prospect of Israel taking unilateral action against Iran – while a nuclear Iran would be problematic for the United States, for Israel it could be an existential threat – adding another dimension of complexity to this deepening crisis.

Large strategic decisions aside, however, the United States does have several intermediate options it can pursue to ratchet up pressure on Iran, particularly with regard to sanctions enforcement. While few disagree that past and current sanctions could and should have had more teeth, upon closer inspection, it is clear that enforcement of the sanctions has been lacking as well. The United States has taken surprisingly little action against violators of its sanctions, and it certainly could do more work searching for such violators. Part of this has to do with cost and bureaucratic inefficiency, but a lot also has to do with the inherent difficulties of enforcement. Nevertheless, the Obama administration could put more resources into enforcement as an intermediate way to ramp up pressure on Iran.

Doing so will not be easy: even the most stringent sanctions are hard to enforce. Penalizing offenders can be costly, especially as black markets for sanctioned goods often develop after bigger, legitimate offenders are punished. Moreover, even if a country like the United States were successfully to cripple trade of a certain good to another country, that country could still get that good from the United States through a middleman; for example, nuclear power plant material could leave a US port bound for a country in South Asia but, once in that country, could then be shipped to Iran. In the past, businesses evaded US and UN sanctions by doing business through Iran via businesses in nearby states, the UAE being a prominent example.

Tracking what businesses that receive initial shipments do with the material they receive is one of many challenges facing a host of export control agencies within the Defense, State, and Commerce Departments (among others). Certainly, beefing up these efforts would help strengthen the sanctions regime against Iran. Indeed, in recent months, the UAE and several other Arab nations have started cooperating more with the United States with export control efforts as the specter of a nuclear Iran grows more pronounced; Arab nations are threatened by a nuclear Iran too.

Should Iran, despite current efforts, reach breakout capacity, the United States has another card to play. The US could enact the ultimate enforcement mechanism: a naval blockade of Iran. Under such a blockade, the United States could forcibly stop ships and check cargo for sensitive material and barcodes or serial numbers that most companies put on their products to identify if such material was shipped from a US port. This would be necessary because, to enforce US sanctions, the United States can only stop US ships (though as a member of the UN Security Council, the United States could also enforce a blockade on behalf of the UN sanctions as well).

Such a blockade would be no easy feat. It would require a substantial number of ships and personnel to search every single commercial vessel going to Iran. Such an aggressive and debatably legal action might also provoke backlash from the international community, so the United States would do well to consult extensively with the Europeans, Russians, Chinese, and others before it undertakes such an action. Moreover, without cooperation from countries neighboring Iran, particularly Russia, there would be no way to enact a total blockade against Iran (though perhaps if President Obama’s “reset” diplomacy with Russia works as planned, the latter may be more willing to help with such an action). Nevertheless, if the United States were to undertake such a blockade, or simply threaten to do so, it would send a clear message to Iran that the United States would be willing to use force if necessary to thwart Iran’s nuclear program. Conveying this intention to Iran could cause it to rethink its options; faced with the likely prospect of U.S. military action, the Iranian government would be more likely to decide that abandoning its nuclear program to maintain its power would be better for it than trying to resist concerted U.S. military.

In this way, a US blockade would strengthen the sanctions regime against Iran while demonstrating that the United States would be willing to move beyond negotiations and diplomacy if necessary. A similar gambit worked against Cuba and may have prevented a Soviet-American WWIII; perhaps now such an intermediate move could resolve this current crisis.

Note: This article originally appeared in the October 2010 issue of American Foreign Policy, a Princeton monthly foreign policy publication.

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