The Iranians, knowing they have the upper hand against a befuddled
Bush administration in several respects, have sporadically and belatedly
offered to freeze uranium enrichment, but have refused to do it as a
condition for negotiations. But negotiations have been held anyway.
At the same time, the United States has pressed Russia and China to
fulfill their agreement to impose sanctions if the Iranians balked at
the original incentives package. Any sanctions, however, are likely to
be weak because both Russia and China have economic interests in Iran.
The sanctions being talked about are a ban on exports of nuclear
components to Iran and a ban on travel for Iranians working on that
country’s nuclear program. Iran already has an extensive illicit network
in the West for smuggling nuclear components, so a formal ban on Western
sales is unlikely to have much of an effect.
For security reasons Iran does not allow its nuclear scientists to do
much overseas junketing, so the travel ban will be mainly symbolic too.
The only sanctions that would have any real effect on Iran would be
in the oil sector. But Russia and China would oppose these vehemently.
And so would the nervous Republicans trying to get re-elected in 2006
and 2008 amid already high oil prices.
Any petroleum sanctions against Iran, one of the world’s largest oil
producers, would cause the world price of oil to escalate. In addition,
the history of economic sanctions indicates that, over time, loopholes
and smuggling eventually greatly diminish their effect.
The Iranians know this well because they have been under some form of
economic sanctions ever since their revolution alarmed the West in the
late 1970s. Thus, Iran is not exactly quaking in its boots over the new
threat of Western sanctions.
Iran also knows that if the United States launches a military air
strike against its nuclear facilities, it could retaliate against the
United States by causing much trouble in two areas of substantial
Republican vulnerability—Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran could encourage
friendly militias in those countries, now supporting their respective
governments, to go into violent opposition.
The Iranians have many friends in both places who are hostile to the
United States. Although Iran would also be harmed by this action, it
could close the Strait of Hormuz to petroleum shipments coming out of
the Persian Gulf, thus causing the world oil price to skyrocket. But
although seemingly irrational, an Iran under U.S. attack might choose to
retaliate in any way possible.
Although the Bush administration would have a stronger hand in
negotiations with Iran if it hadn’t become involved in the Afghan and
Iraqi quagmires, it can’t cry over spilled milk. In addition, haggling
over only temporarily freezing the Iranian nuclear program in order to
allow negotiations provides no permanent solution to the problem.
The United States must make another bold offer to Iran, this time
without the accompanying threats. In addition to the economic incentives
provided by a full normalization of U.S.–Iranian relations and complete
integration of Iran into the world economy, the United States needs to
guarantee the Iranians that neither the United States nor Israel will
At this late date, with the recent invasions by Iran’s adversaries of
Iraq and Lebanon, Iran may be too suspicious that such promises will be
broken and elect not to give up its nuclear program. But at this point,
it’s the Bush administration’s only option.
In fact, the threat of military attack by the United States or Israel
is what’s driving Iran to seek nuclear weapons in the first place.
If Iran remains intransigent, the United States will probably have to
accept that Iran will likely some day become a nuclear weapons state.
Although undesirable, this outcome would not be catastrophic because the
United States has the most formidable nuclear forces in the world and
could likely deter any strike from the small Iranian atomic arsenal.
The United States successfully deterred a nuclear attack by radical
Maoist China after that regime got nuclear weapons in the 1960s. Nuclear
deterrence should also work in the case of a theocratic Iran.
Ivan Eland is a Senior Fellow at The Independent Institute,
Director of the Institute’s
Center on Peace &
Liberty, and author of the books
The Empire Has No Clothes, and
Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.