The Obama administration was on Wednesday hailing the new UN Security Council sanctions against Iran as the toughest show yet of international determination to derail Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
The timing of the UN vote, just days ahead of the one-year anniversary of the rigged presidential election that returned Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad to power, was auspicious. Although not intended as such, it delivers a deserved blow to a regime that has been oppressing the reformist opposition.
The self-satisfaction in Washington, however, might be shortlived. If more sanctions are being imposed – and this is the fourth series of UN penalties – it is because engagement with Tehran, the big policy shift under President Barack Obama, was essentially still-born.
In a few months, though, the policy of sanctions too could appear exhausted. True, the UN measures which target Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, the elite corps which now holds a grip on power, will be followed by harsher unilateral sanctions in the US and perhaps Europe.
Iran will be hurt and it will protest. It may even retaliate in some form. But it is doubtful that sanctions will alter Iran’s behaviour, halting, as they are meant to, its sprawling nuclear programme.
Indeed, even as the sanctions were being negotiated, the debate has been shifting in recent months to the bigger dilemma: Can a nuclear-armed Iran be deterred?
The need for long-term policies to deal with Iran’s nuclear progress appears to have been at the centre of a famous memo that Robert Gates, the secretary of defence, sent to the White House in January.
Increasingly, policy-makers are concerned that Iran could acquire all the necessary elements for atomic weapons, including fuel and design, but not test a weapon.
To the dismay of Israel, for whom a nuclear Iran is intolerable, several policy analysts have been arguing that the world could adapt to a nuclear Iran, just as it has to other nuclear powers like Pakistan. Particularly as the alternative of military strikes against nuclear facilities could ignite a conflict with unknown consequences and at best delay Tehran’s progress.
Proponents of deterrence, including Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former White House national security adviser, say the US should extend a nuclear umbrella to its allies in the Middle East and keep in mind that the turmoil in Iranian society, though now suppressed by the Revolutionary Guard, will eventually usher in a more acceptable regime.
No doubt a nuclear Iran would destabilise the Middle East and embolden Tehran’s allies. The stand-off would play out through proxy conflicts in places like Lebanon and Iraq. A nuclear Iran could also encourage others in the region, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, to seek their own deterrent, though it would take many years to catch up.
But the growing military influence on the Tehran regime and the rise of the radical Mr Ahmadi-Nejad should not suggest that Iran will use an atomic bomb: Iran’s leaders are concerned above all with maintaining power rather than with the demise of Israel.
“Over the last three decades this regime has shown itself to be odious but not suicidal,” says Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “What’s paramount to them is their own survival, and they’re . . . a menace to their own people more than anyone else.”
That the argument for deterrence is gaining traction, however, is now spurring some alarming proposals. One of the most controversial is advanced by Amitai Etzioni, a professor of international relations at George Washington University, in the current issue of Military Review, the journal of the US army.
Convinced that the Obama administration is heading in the direction of tolerating Iran’s nuclear programme, he argues for a military option that would target Iran’s non-nuclear military assets, and keep up the bombing campaign even against infrastructure until Tehran relents. “This kind of military action is akin to sanctions – causing ‘pain’ in order to change behaviour, albeit by much more powerful means,” he says.
Powerful it may well be – but it would also inflict pain all round, with the US and its allies receiving their share.