It has been five years since the UN Security Council first demanded that Iran cease enriching uranium. But the Islamic Republic continues to defy international pressure and is stubbornly advancing with what appears to be a bid to acquire nuclear weapons in the coming year.
On November 8, the International Atomic Energy Agency released a report expressing “serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program.” The most recent development is Iran’s announcement that it is beginning to enrich uranium in a new facility in Fordo, near the holy city of Qom.
The imminent opening of the new enrichment site further complicates a military option. Since the new facility is buried deep underground at a well-defended military site, it is considered far more resistant to air strikes than the existing enrichment site at Natanz. And even if a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities succeeded, the geopolitical fallout is liable to be nightmarish, although the prospect of a nuclear Iran is no less of a nightmare.
Covert actions, in contrast, carry much less of a risk, but are also less effective. For instance, last week’s assassination of Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, director of the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, undoubtedly dealt a blow to Iran’s nuclear program.
But the delay, if any, is only temporary since Roshan is obviously not the only person in Iran privy to nuclear know-how. And these sorts of operations have negative side effects. Theoretically, if the US was behind the killing of Roshan or one of the other four (or five, depending on which reports you believe) scientists killed since 2007 and this became known, the Obama administration might have a more difficult time putting together a unified front consisting of Russia, China and other countries against Iran.
Some say that targeted killings strengthen extremists, though it is difficult to claim today that there is any significant “moderate” opposition challenging the Islamic Republic’s leadership.
In contrast, cyber warfare or other non-lethal covert operations such as the Stuxnet virus are less likely to hurt American attempts to muster a broad coalition against Iran. Some of these operations can be presented by the Iranians as “accidents.”
Economic sanctions, meanwhile, have so far not changed Iranian nuclear policy, though they have caused some damage. Indeed, since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, there have been numerous attempts to influence Iranian policy through economic sanctions.
Arguably, such sanctions helped end Iran’s war with Iraq in 1988. At the same time, Iran’s economy has been forced to adapt to functioning under various Western boycotts while developing alternative trade ties with Russia, China and several South and Central American countries.
Still, Tehran’s threat to close the Strait of Hormuz, gateway to much of the world’s oil trade, could be a sign of its growing economic desperation. Iranians are plagued by inflation, unemployment and economic stagnation. And the economic situation will only worsen. Though a new round of Security Council-backed sanctions has been delayed due to opposition from Russia and China, the US and Europe have put in place their own penalties. Japan pledged to buy less Iranian oil while South Korea said it was looking for alternative suppliers. And even China can take advantage of a situation in which fewer countries are buying Iranian oil to put pressure on Tehran to lower prices.
A new US law that would penalize foreign companies that do business with Iran’s central bank and an oil embargo that EU foreign ministers plan to approve on January 23 could have an even bigger impact.
A combination of covert operations, economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure, while at the same time keeping the military option “on the table,” is the only way to convince Tehran to back down. And maintaining a broad coalition of countries behind the sanctions is the best way to make them effective.