Playing With Fire
Between You and Me
The escalating crisis over Iran’s nuclear program will not have a happy ending. Every conventional course of action that could be taken by western policymakers and negotiators to slow down or stop Iranian enrichment of uranium, would bolster the Islamic republic, whether it be an internal consolidation of power, or increased regional influence.
Western leaders agree that leaving Iran to its own devices is not in their interest. This limits them to two options, both aggressive and lacking diplomacy: a military strike, which could fail to hit its target(s) while mobilizing popular support for an otherwise fractured regime; and economic sanctions, which are the safer of the two, but which are generally proven to be ineffective, in addition to causing severe hardship for the citizens of the country in question rather than the government itself.
Many countries have clearly adopted the latter course of action, the most recent considerations being a European Union (EU) oil embargo, which could conceivably reduce Iranian oil exports to Europe by 18 percent—no where near enough to amount to a significant strain on Iran’s income from oil exports, which account for 60 percent of its economy. At the same time, such a decision threatens to drive up oil prices, and as we enter the third year of economic crisis, this move is exceptionally bold, perhaps reckless. Those supporting the measure emphasize a phased approach that would serve to cushion the blow of severed oil contracts with Iran.
There is no doubt that Iran is hurting from economic sanctions—Iran’s currency is down nearly 40 percent since December, falling to a historic low against the dollar this past Tuesday, but whether such actions will eventually force Iran to abandon its nuclear program is unknown, and it does not seem wise to adopt a wait and see approach if western governments will simply not accept a nuclear Iran.
While Iran has signaled its desire to reopen talks with the West on this issue, it has not missed an opportunity to exacerbate the situation—it recently test-fired new missiles, announced the production of its first nuclear fuel rod, its navy just conducted 10 days of military exercises in the Strait of Hormuz, a vital oil tanker pathway through which 35 percent of the world’s seaborne oil passes, and in direct response to US President Barack Obama signing legislation aimed at preventing foreign countries from buying Iranian oil and other exports, it threatened to close the strait, the possibility of which caused a surge in oil prices.
This state of affairs could conceivably continue for years (33 years have already passed in which the Iranian people have had to endure sanctions) unless one party takes military action, and then the game will change, certainly for the worse. A creative solution to the Iranian problem is long overdue. Ultimately, the West must come to terms with the possibility of a nuclear Iran. Once this becomes the starting point, more opportunities to engage Iran become available, all of which begin with diplomacy. The standoff between the western-led international community and Iran is in its worst phase yet, and escalation of the conflict seems likely. Accepting Iran’s right to pursue its national security interests would be perceived by Iran as a serious attempt by the West to end this standoff and engage rather than isolate the Islamic republic.
At the same time, hardliners in Iran would be less effective in mobilizing Iranians around the twin issues of security and sovereignty, leaving room for a full-fledged Iranian Spring. If, as the West asserts, Iran is planning on building nuclear warheads, then one can assume that it is doing so not to start a nuclear war, but to project power in the region. So the threat is not that Iran will use nuclear weapons, but that it will rely on their existence to significantly increase its regional influence, at the expense of America’s allies of course. However, with the possibility of power in more reasonable hands, held by a less vulnerable regime, one might be able to imagine a scenario whereby the US and its allies have more leverage to affect Iran’s long-term foreign policy goals.
One point to keep in mind is that having the capability to make nuclear weapons is still a long way off from possessing nuclear weapons. If western leaders were serious about peace and stability in the region, then they would be wise to use the interim period to push for a nuclear free Middle East, starting with Israel. This could be one of several incentives for Iran to stick to its repeated claims that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.