What is the use, at least potentially, of sanctions on Iran? We all know that any sanctions the US government, or even the world, is likely to apply won’t stop Iran’s nuclear program. But there are many other potential goals for imposing sanctions. These include: making it harder for Iran to build these weapons and the missiles to carry them, slowing down the program, reducing Iran’s economic assets which can be used for military spending, denying Iran other weapons, intimidating Iran into greater caution in its actual behavior and encouraging factions (both within the establishment and in the opposition) to conclude that the current regime is leading them to disaster and must be displaced.
Of these six goals, the current sanctions plan largely accomplishes one of them – barring the sale of most conventional weapons (but not anti-aircraft missiles) – and does a small amount toward reducing Iran’s assets and slowing down the project. In general, though, it is a question of too little too late.
Again, the problem is not that the sanctions proposed (and which might still be watered down further) aren’t so huge as to make Iran stop but that they will not make Iran more cautious, promote internal conflict due to their high cost or really increase economic pressure to reduce military spending.
Should the world stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons? In principle, the answer is yes, but we now know that this will not happen. The task, then, is to prepare for a strong containment strategy, which is also not happening.
The US government seems to believe that “declaring” containment – saying for example, “if Teheran gives nuclear weapons to terrorists, we will do something,” “if it attacks a neighbor, we will do something” – is sufficient at a time when US credibility and deterrence is at an all-time low.
Why did Russia and China agree to the sanctions plan? Because it doesn’t stop them from doing everything they want, with the exception of selling conventional weapons to Iran (which they might smuggle into the country anyway).
How do we know that US credibility and deterrence power is at an all-time low due to the current policy of “proud weakness” by the Obama administration? Take a look at Lebanon, for example. Former champions of Lebanese sovereignty against Hizbullah, Iran and Syria, now rush to Damascus to pledge allegiance to the Syrian dictatorship. US leaders also don’t notice the defection of the Turkish regime to the other side. Even with Brazil, despite Obama’s lavish praise for that country’s radical president, Teheran’s view counted more than that of Washington.
There are many articles in Arabic-language newspapers and other sources about how they feel the US is too weak and undependable as a protector. Simultaneously, there are growing moves to appease Syria and Iran.
Is the concept of Iran using nuclear weapons as a “defensive umbrella” for aggression a viable one? Absolutely. Having nuclear weapons will make Iran “untouchable” in terms of retaliation. We already see this on a smaller scale with North Korea and Pakistan.
This is all on a small scale compared to Iran’s capabilities, assets and ambitions. The strategic idea is that Iran will not actually fire nuclear weapons but having them gives it huge prestige that will help recruit thousands of Muslims in other countries into its client organizations, and intimidate the West and Arabic-speaking states into passivity or active appeasement.
Should Israel attack Iranian nuclear installations? I lean toward a no on this question for a number of reasons. We know that such an operation would not destroy Iran’s ability to rebuild its capability, or might not even damage it significantly. Too much can go wrong with the attack itself.
Moreover, Israel lacks the minimal international support for such an attack. I don’t mean Israel cannot do it, but on a cost-benefit basis – and in military operations one cannot assume everything will go right – the strategy doesn’t seem a good bet. All that is only true, of course, if Israeli assessments are that Iran is not going to attack Israel. And if those assessments ever change, then such an operation should be launched.
No one should underestimate the value of Israel’s own defensive system, which can be especially effective against the very small number of missiles Iran could launch even if it did decide to attack.
This analysis does not assume a nuclear Iran will not pose a huge and actual threat, but that the main problem is for Arabic-speaking states having to protect themselves from Iranian intimidation and subversion. It is also for the US having to create a credible system of containment. But the real burden for meeting this challenge is not for Israel.
The other countries of the world are going to have to learn for themselves the enormous mistake of failing to stop Iran and cheering the weakening of the United States. At that point, they are more likely to listen to reason. They are more likely to do this if they cannot depend on Israel to “save” them.
The writer is editor of Middle East Review of International Affairs and Turkish Studies. The Jerusalem Post (abridged).