After months of first attempting to engage Iran and then wooing Russia and China to support new sanctions against the Islamic republic, the Obama administration appears within reach of winning a modest tightening of U.N. measures targeting Tehran. But administration officials acknowledge that even what they call “crippling” sanctions could prove ineffective in keeping Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
That stalemate, in the view of many analysts, means that a strategy of containing Iran is inevitable — diplomatic isolation backed by defense systems supplied to Persian Gulf allies.
“I think we are in for a long cold war with Iran. It will be containment and deterrence,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, a former top State Department official who is now a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “Iran will muddle along building its stockpile but never making a nuclear bomb because it knows that crossing that line would provoke an immediate military attack.”
The administration appears to have all but eliminated the military option, with top officials repeatedly warning that a military attack would only delay, not eliminate, Tehran’s nuclear program — and would engender new anger at the United States in the region. Some experts are doubtful that Iran would openly declare it has a nuclear weapon, because that would remove the last shred of ambiguity about its program, which it insists is entirely peaceful.
Administration officials say that U.N. sanctions will be followed by tougher penalties approved by the European Union and then even stronger actions by individual countries in Europe and Asia. The moves would come on top of a sustained campaign by the Treasury Department and nongovernmental organizations to persuade banks, shipping businesses and international companies to stop doing business with Iran.
A pressure strategy
Although officials say the push for new sanctions stems from Iran’s failure to negotiate, they also say that it is intended to get the country to the negotiating table.
“What we believe is that if the international community will unify and make this statement, maybe then we would get the Iranians’ attention in a way that would lead to the kind of good-faith negotiations that President Obama called for 15 months ago,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told the Financial Times last week.
Clinton acknowledged uncertainty about whether this strategy would succeed: “Can I sit here and tell you exactly what will happen, assuming we are able to get the kind of sanctions that we are looking for? No. . . trying to work toward some better outcome among some really difficult and not very satisfying choices.”
Juan Zarate, a deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration, said the Obama administration runs a risk if it is suggesting sanctions could change Iranian behavior. “By talking about it in maximalist terms, you are setting yourself up for failure,” he said.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who has questioned how the United States would verify whether Iran had reached the threshold of a nuclear weapon, acknowledged over the weekend that he sent a memo to the White House in January urging planning for contingencies that might emerge as the administration implements the “pressure” track.
Pessimism about talks
Indeed, few experts think that any negotiations with Iran will amount to much. Iran has been engaged, off and on, with European and U.S. interlocutors since 2003 over its nuclear program. Over time, the offers from the U.S.-European side have grown sweeter, with little response from Iran. The U.N. Security Council has imposed three sets of sanctions on Tehran for failing to negotiate seriously about its program. So far, said Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations, the pressure has “cost the Iranian economy but not affected Iranian decision-making.” But he warned that containment will be “hard and difficult and may require the use of force to enforce red lines.”
Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that “there is a clique in power” in Tehran that “does not respond to incentives and does not respond to disincentives.” The Iranian government, under siege from the popular uprising last year after a disputed presidential election, views the nuclear program as a rallying point for national pride — and it thrives on the perception of the United States as an implacable enemy, he said.
“The overwhelming focus of this leadership is on the narrow focus of enriching uranium,” Sadjadpour said. “If the Iranian government makes the decision that Iran wants to bet the farm on the nuclear program, it will be difficult to deter them from doing so.”
Sadjadpour says that the purge of moderates from the decision-making structures in Iran has made it more likely that the country will attempt “the Pakistan option.” Under this scenario, Iran would declare itself a nuclear-weapons state, endure the condemnation and then watch as the world comes crawling, anxious to bring it back into the international fold.
Any military strike at that time would only temporarily set back the program and then “preserve the worst elements of the regime,” Sadjadpour said. “It would buy the regime another decade or even a generation.”
Shahram Chubin, director of research at the Geneva Center for Security Policy, said the accumulation of sanctions is “exacting a price on the Iranians, but it is not going to change its policies.” Iran may make what he called “tactical overtures” — such as indicating renewed interest in a proposed swap of nuclear material desperately needed for a medical research reactor in Tehran. But such overtures would not indicate a shift in its intention to acquire nuclear expertise, he said.
Chubin said the United States and its allies are gambling on the unexpected occurring. “We are trying to buy time so something can happen. But what could that something be?” he said. “One should do as much as you can do to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. But at the end of the day, this may well be the case that whatever you do makes it worse.”