Iran sanctions: the clock is ticking

The European Union has agreed a fresh round of sanctions against Iran, including asset freezes and trade restrictions on oil and gas companies. But is there any evidence that such embargos are thwarting Tehran’s nuclear ambitions?

Although the EU should be praised for taking tough action, there is no indication that Tehran has changed course. The regime still insists that its nuclear project is for peaceful purposes. Moreover, it is refusing to reduce its uranium enrichment activity unless sanctions are lifted.

It is true that Iran’s economy is in freefall. Its currency, the rial, is at an all-time low. Oil exports have fallen to 860,000 barrels per day, compared with 2.2 million bpd at the close of 2011. And in the words of UK prime minister David Cameron, “there are signs that the Iranian people are beginning to question the regime’s strategy with even pro-regime groups protesting at the actions of the government.”

But Iran’s leaders are not easily cowed by international or internal pressure. Despite being a pariah nation since 1979, it is now the dominant Islamic power in the Middle East. It survived a wave of strikes and protests in 2003 and 2009 respectively, and will probably survive the current economic crisis by clamping down on demonstrators and opponents. In the meantime, millions of ordinary Iranians will suffer the consequences of rising prices and economic collapse.

There is also a risk that Israel and the West will be blamed for inflicting punishment on innocent people who have no connection with the regime in Tehran. Indeed, Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader are likely to exploit the sufferings of ordinary people for propaganda purposes. In the meantime, Iranians are forced to live in poverty as their leaders consolidate their hold on the institutions of power. Let’s not forget that Saddam Hussein continued to rule Iraq despite years of sanctions.

Plus, there are reports that Tehran is preparing to force an end to sanctions by wreaking environmental havoc. According to Der Spiegel, Iran is threatening to cause a massive oil spill in the Strait of Hormuz, thereby creating an ecological disaster and blocking a vital shipping route. If this happens the West will have no option but to lift the embargo and cooperate with the Iranian authorities in order to facilitate a clean-up.

But in truth, all Iran has to do is bide its time. A new report by the Institute for Science and International Security reveals that Iran will be able to produce weapons-grade fuel in two to four months, with additional time needed to integrate the uranium into a nuclear warhead. In the meantime Iran’s nuclear facilities are being buried in deep underground bunkers. The longer the international community hesitates, the less chance it has of destroying these facilities.

Sanctions may be decimating Iran’s economy and they may be causing internal strife, but there is no evidence yet that Iran is prepared to relinquish its nuclear dream. In the meantime, the clock is ticking.

So, should Israel continue to hold its nerve and see if sanctions work? Netanyahu is painfully aware that Iran is busy burying its nuclear project in hard-to-reach bunkers. He also knows that it is only a matter of months before Iran is capable to dropping a bomb on Tel Aviv. Israel has to act very soon, regardless of sanctions.

Moreover, there is the argument that the Iranian people themselves would be better off if Israel took military action. Iran’s civilians would probably be largely unaffected by targeted strikes on the country’s nuclear facilities. In contrast, sanctions are affecting the lives and morale of ordinary Iranians and will eventually lead to the collapse of the middle class, thereby robbing Iran of its best chance to peacefully topple the regime from within.

Military action, then, seems the best course of action. It is quick, decisive and relatively painless. It would also alleviate Israel’s security fears, which have reached fever pitch in the past few months. Of course, there will be retaliation from Hezbollah and possibly Hamas. But Israel is vastly superior to either of these organizations and is used to dealing with their murderous tactics. Dealing with a nuclear Iran is quite another thing.

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