The Economist: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has had his last chance
The six countries trying to talk Iran out of its dangerous nuclear ambitions—America, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China—face an unappetising choice.
Jan 7th 2010
From The Economist print edition
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has had his last chance
THE six countries trying to talk Iran out of its dangerous nuclear ambitions—America, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China—face an unappetising choice. Iran continues to produce stocks of enriched uranium that it claims are intended for a civilian nuclear programme (although it has no nuclear-powered reactor that could use the stuff), but which could make a bomb.
Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was offered a deal by which Russia and France would have taken much of his stock of low-enriched uranium and turned it—safely outside the country—into special higher-enriched fuel for a Tehran-based research reactor. By diminishing Iran’s stockpile, if only for a few months, the deal could have opened the door a crack to confidence-building talks with the six. But the deadline for taking up that offer was the end of 2009, and the hand that Barack Obama has extended to the regime has therefore been spurned.
The stakes are all the higher because this issue is a severe test of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). That grand bargain enables countries to make electricity, but not weapons, with nuclear fission. It is up for review this year. If the months tick by with Iran demonstrating to all the world just how easy it is to break the treaty’s rules with impunity, the NPT will finally be done for. The time has therefore come for harsher measures. There are only two options for the six countries: tougher sanctions or military action.
No government—not even that in Israel, whose security is most directly threatened by Mr Ahmadinejad—wants to use force. Military strikes could interrupt Iran’s nuclear effort, but the gains are as uncertain as the costs. They might take out officially declared sites, but intelligence agencies know that there are others too, like the weapons-sized uranium-enrichment plant being built secretly in a mountainside on a well-guarded compound near Qom whose existence was revealed only four months ago. And even if an attack succeeded in penetrating all of Iran’s underground sites—a big if—it could do no more than set back Iran’s ambitions temporarily. After Israel bombed Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981, Saddam Hussein redoubled his efforts to get a bomb. Military strikes would also risk provoking a wider conflict in a region that is already worryingly unstable.
More painful sanctions, then, are the only sensible alternative to leaving Iran to enrich its way to the dangerous point where it can declare it has a bomb. But Russia and China—especially China, which has piled money into Iran’s oil and gas industries as Western companies have withdrawn—are reluctant to get tough.
Self-interest is not the only reason to oppose sanctions. Those who favour military strikes and those who would do nothing both complain that sanctions won’t work. Others believe that they would work, but would do more harm than good by encouraging Iranians to rally around the government at a time when the protest movement looks as though it might just bring about change.
But Iran’s protest movement is too little understood to place much weight on such judgments. There is virtually no independent reporting of what is happening inside the country, the demonstrators have no obvious leader and the movement’s fate will greatly depend on splits inside a closed clerical elite. Nor, in places where the facts are clearer, have the consequences of sanctions been predictable. Against Saddam’s government in Iraq, they encouraged the regime to dig in. Against apartheid in South Africa and an embryonic nuclear programme in Libya, they seem to have encouraged change.
If sanctions were used only when their consequences were certain, then they would never be used at all; and uncertainty is no excuse for doing nothing, because that could be just as dangerous.
Damned if you do? Damned if you don’t
Hence the case for policies that punish the regime and spare the people. Existing sanctions have frustrated some illicit imports for its nuclear and missile programmes. Routine searches of Iranian ships and planes at foreign ports and airfields would catch more—and sting too. Banking restrictions have earned the president the ire of merchants and MPs. These can be tightened and extended. America’s Congress favours slapping a ban on gasoline imports which, given Iran’s shortage of refining capacity, could bring the economy to its knees. But that would allow Mr Ahmadinejad to blame outsiders just as he is about to incur the people’s wrath by cutting petrol subsidies. A bar on investment in the oil and gas industry and on weapons imports would be smarter.
Getting agreement for such sanctions will be hard, and not just because of China and Russia. Some officials in Mr Obama’s team have hinted that further patience could yet be wise. Keeping the door open to talks, should Mr Ahmadinejad have a change of heart, is a good idea. But putting off harsher measures will only encourage him to press on. Despite the uncertainty of action, the price for inaction is higher.