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What If Sanctions On Iran Don't Work?

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad visits a technology exhibition. Western governments fear that his regime is developing nuclear weapons.
President Mahmud Ahmadinejad visits a technology exhibition. Western governments fear that his regime is developing nuclear weapons.
WASHINGTON -- The backroom lobbying game is on as the UN Security Council faces the prospect of imposing a fourth round of sanctions aimed at curbing Iran's nuclear program.

As the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany mull the wording of a U.S.-drafted sanctions proposal, Tehran is engaged in its own effort to lobby all 15 members of the council -- aside from the Americans --against passing tougher sanctions.

Diplomats familiar with the ongoing negotiations among the P-5 plus Germany, which are seeking a formula acceptable to China and Russia, have said they expect talks to run until June. But the clock is ticking, with the U.S. House of Representatives calling for Congress to go it alone and impose unilateral, and even stricter, sanctions on Iran by the end of May if UN negotiations fail to materialize by that time.

At issue is uranium enrichment, which Iran restarted by lifting a suspension in 2005 on the basis that it had the right to pursue a peaceful civilian nuclear program. The underlying issue is whether new international sanctions can succeed where three sets of sanctions dating back to 2006 have failed in persuading Iran to halt uranium enrichment, which the United States and others in the West believe could be used for military purposes.

The U.S. draft being considered would impose a total arms embargo, a ban on investments in Iran's energy sector, and restrictions on Iranian banking. The draft, however, falls short of sanctioning the import or export of oil or gas products to or from Iran.

Despite being a major petroleum exporter, Iran lacks sufficient oil refineries and imports 40 percent of its gasoline to meet domestic demands. The unilateral U.S. sanctions would aim to curb Iran's gasoline imports by punishing firms and individuals involved in Iran's petroleum sector, which would affect scores of foreign companies.

Results May Vary

While sanctions are intended to persuade Iranian leaders that there are more costs than benefits to pursuing an enrichment program, skeptics say new sanctions are unlikely to make Iran change course.

Former UN weapons inspector David Albright says that even if new sanctions are imposed, it could take several years before their effectiveness could be assessed.

"Sanctions are meant to have a longer-term effect to try to change the thinking of the Iranian regime,” Albright says. “The sanctions are just beginning, they're in the process of ramping them up, so I don't think one can judge whether they failed for several years."

Iranian officials have said on a number of occasions that new sanctions will not be effective. Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad recently went so far as to welcome the imposition of sanctions aimed at the country's gasoline imports.

"They said they would adopt gasoline sanctions, I welcomed it and said, 'do it soon.' They don't understand that whatever they do is to our benefit,” Ahmadinejad said. “They think that if they say they won't give Iran gasoline we will be upset, we will mourn and [prepare to die]. This is not the case. We will tell our experts immediately to produce the amount of gasoline we need within a week to two weeks."

But at the same time, Iran has launched an effort to convince Security Council members not to impose a new round of sanctions, and plans to lobby all 15 members aside from the United States. This month Ahmadinejad traveled to nonpermanent member Uganda, while Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki has made trips to nonpermanent members Austria and Bosnia-Herzegovina and hosted representatives from Turkey.

This week, the foreign minister of nonpermanent council member Brazil, Celso Amorim, was in Tehran for two days, where he said new sanctions would be "unfair" and "negative."

Powerful Message?

Others, such as Richard Dalton, an associate fellow at the Middle East program at the London based Royal institute of International affairs, feel differently. The former British ambassador to Tehran says that, if passed unanimously by the UN, new sanctions would send a strong signal.

The sanctions would have to impact Iran’s “supply of arms; the cooperation which Iran can achieve in the international financial system with other countries; its transport links; [and] the business access of its key companies that belong to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps,” Dalton said. “If these things are negotiable -- and they still might be -- then there would be both an economic impact and a strong political signal sent to the Iranian system that their outlook for their international links is going to be bleak if they don't change course.”

If tougher sanctions fail to persuade Iran to change course and abandon its enrichment program, some analysts have suggested the United States would have to employ other measures.

Albright, who heads the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, believes the key is not to give up and to keep increasing the pressure on Iran.

He believes that in the coming months, the United States and its negotiating partners will be engaged in heightened efforts to raise the heat on Iran, improve sanctions, prevent the prospect of Israel bombing Iran's nuclear facilities, and hamper Iran's nuclear program -- by sabotage if necessary.

"After all, Iran goes out and essentially steals the equipment internationally. It's breaking the laws in Germany, Japan, China, to get equipment for its centrifuge program because it makes almost nothing that it needs for its centrifuge program,” Albright says.

“There is a continuing need for goods for the nuclear [program] and you'll probably see more attempts to sabotage that equipment, and so you can hurt the centrifuge program in Iran that way,” he says. “There's a certain logic in it, and I think you'll see much more of that. It's already going on, but it tends to be fairly low-key and we don't see a lot of evidence of success, although we hear some things."

Outside The Council

Dalton says if sanctions fail, then the United States and its allies would face several options.

One is to make change the negotiating strategy with Tehran based on what he described as an "adaptation of the existing positions” of the P5+1 countries that have held negotiations with Iran.

A second option, Dalton says, is to determine further measures -- outside the framework of the UN -- with countries that are particularly anxious over the potential impact of Iran's nuclear program.

The "last-resort option," as U.S. officials have referred to it, would be a military attack against Iran.

Many analysts and researchers have warned about the drawbacks of such a move. An attack would likely succeed in delaying Iran's nuclear program, they say, but would not stop it. In a worst-case scenario, it could even make Iranian leaders more determined to push ahead with their nuclear efforts.

A U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran could potentially harm the nascent democratic movement that has challenged the Iranian leadership for the past 10 months. In the event of an attack, the Iranian people would be very likely to rally around the government, with those who don’t risking being branded enemies of the state. Iran has also vowed to retaliate against any military attack against it.

The Acceptance Option

A fourth possibility being increasingly discussed in the U.S. media is for Washington to accept living with a "nuclear Iran."

Dalton predicts that if Iran were to acquire the capacity to develop nuclear weapons, the United States would adopt measures to protect the interests of the countries in the region most threatened by that prospect.

"My assessment is that Iran wishes to develop all the technologies required for a weapon, but will not actually assemble and test one,” Dalton says. “So they would remain a threshold power like other countries, thereby staying within their commitments under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).”

“In those circumstances I think that when considering the options, responsible statesmen in Europe and the United States and Russia and China would come to the conclusion that although the situation was very unsatisfactory and the Middle East region would be less stable as a result, the best option would be deterrence and containment. In other words, learning to live with a new country in the region that has nuclear weapons or weapons capability," Dalton says

Albright, however, says that even if Iran were to achieve a threshold capability or actually produce nuclear weapons, the world would be wise to keep pressuring it to give up its program.

"If you don't give up, you have a pretty good chance over the long term of succeeding," says Albright. "If you accept the nuclear capability or nuclear weapons, you're almost sure to fail."
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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