The ongoing failure of talks concerning Iran’s nuclear weapons program, most recently in Istanbul on July 3, is no surprise. This latest negotiation charade between Iran and the Security Council’s five permanent members plus Germany (P5+1) is the culmination of 10 years of innumerable diplomatic endeavors. These efforts rested on the erroneous premise that Iran could be talked out of its decades-long effort to build deliverable nuclear weapons.
Now, almost no one argues there is light at the end of the negotiation tunnel. The most they hope for, especially President Obama, is that the plain futility of diplomacy’s latest pretense will not lead Israel to attack Iran’s nuclear program before our November 6 election. Obama fears such an Israeli strike more than he fears Iran actually fabricating nuclear weapons because of his dangerous misperception that a nuclear Iran could be contained and deterred. Even worse, Iran fully understands Obama’s thinking, and sees no reason to believe it will change if he’s reelected.
We are well past the point where sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program achieve more than making their proponents feel good about “doing something.” They neither restrain Iran’s nuclear program nor effectively advance the goal of replacing the mullahs with a regime that would truly forswear nuclear weapons. Combined with material assistance to Iran’s extensive opposition, sanctions could help destabilize Tehran, but unfortunately both the Obama and Bush administrations have failed on that score.
And even Team Obama does not believe sanctions will stop Iran’s weapons program. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on June 30, for example, that “the pressure track is our primary focus now, and we believe that the economic sanctions are bringing Iran to the table.” That is a far cry from actually terminating the weapons program. Moreover, what would a negotiated deal look like? Our goal is to deny Iran nuclear weapons; Tehran manifestly wants the opposite. What is the compromise? Iran gets to keep a small nuclear weapons program? Not even the most effervescent Obama supporters (publicly) endorse such a result.
The fundamental problem today is that there simply is no effective, enforceable sanctions regime that will compel Iran to abandon its nuclear aspirations. It may once have been possible, a decade ago or more, but even then would have required full, active cooperation from Russia, China, and others; comprehensive sanctions, not the ad hoc structure actually created; armed enforcement; and checkmating Iran’s highly successful cheating and evasion efforts. That theoretical chance has long since disappeared.
Instead, Obama surrogates argue that Iran would renounce nuclear weapons if permitted to keep a “peaceful” nuclear program under international monitoring. In theory, such a deal should be easy, since Iran already loudly contends it has no weapons ambitions. But both Bush and Obama erred by conceding that Iran has any right even to “peaceful” nuclear activities without fundamental regime change. No nation that has so egregiously violated its treaty obligations (as Iran has violated the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by seeking nuclear weapons) has a right to claim benefits under the same agreement. Tehran has no credibility here. The mullahs will never agree to an intrusive verification mechanism that could actually detect systematic cheating; indeed, they reject it for a more fundamental reason: Exposing such impotence against foreign governments could spur Iran’s domestic opposition to challenge and endanger the regime itself.
Many who agree diplomacy has failed still support sanctions, computer virus attacks, and even targeted killings, hoping thereby to stop the nuclear program without resorting to military force. In fact, such efforts have been underway for years with no evidence they have materially slowed Iran’s program. There is a reason. All these steps are simply tactical responses, thrown in over time, against Iran’s passion to achieve what it feels is a strategic imperative. Just as military commanders learn through training or sad experience that deploying their reserves piecemeal will lose both the battle and the reserves, the piecemeal deployment of antinuclear tactics has simply provided Iran space to adjust and deploy countermeasures.
If commentators and the press had longer attention spans, they would recall the history of nearly 10 years of sanctions imposed on Iran, unilaterally by America, Japan, and others, more broadly by the European Union, and even more broadly by the Security Council. The net effect is that Iran continues to plow ahead. As Obama’s director of national intelligence, Lt. General James Clapper, testified in January, “the sanctions as imposed so far have not caused [the Iranians] to change their behavior or their policy.”
Iran has been anticipating sanctions for years, not starting yesterday. Advance planning has defeated some measures before they were even imposed. Sanctions advocates once stressed, for example, prohibiting exports of refined petroleum products to Iran, taking advantage of the curious reality that, though a major petroleum exporter, Iran had inadequate domestic refining capabilities. In anticipation, Iran attracted substantial capital from China and elsewhere to build new refining capacity; dramatically scaled back domestic gas subsidies, driving up prices and effectively reducing current demand; and took steps toward using its enormous natural gas reserves to fuel public-vehicle fleets like urban mass transit and military vehicles. Today, refined-petroleum sanctions are effectively no longer under consideration.
We are told the latest round of oil and financial sanctions is different, but already analysts see them failing, because of extensive Obama administration waivers, lax EU enforcement, and massive fraud, deception, and misinformation by Iran. Iran took advantage of the oil price runup starting in the early 2000s to accumulate huge foreign currency reserves. It has designed and deployed worldwide money-laundering capabilities, creative but entirely false statistics, and oil-smuggling techniques that would make drug cartels envious. Perhaps most important, Tehran’s mullahs have the will to prevail, certainly in any contest with the Obama administration.
However much economic pain sanctions are causing (a reasonable debating point), no one has produced a scintilla of evidence, despite the hosannas greeting the newest sanctions, that they have actually changed Iran’s behavior since Clapper’s January testimony. The only corroboration is Iran’s early July missile tests, general saber-rattling, and smug attitude about the P5+1 negotiations. There is much administration talk about “Perm Five unity,” but in fact Russia and China have a strategic national interest in preventing us from succeeding. Even if Moscow and Beijing truly oppose a nuclear Iran, they will not, for their own broader reasons, let the West bend Tehran to its will. Just as they continue to protect Syria’s Assad regime, an Iranian satellite which has neither substantial oil nor its own nuclear weapons program, Russia and China see Iran as a test case in limiting American power. And they are succeeding.
Focusing on half-steps simply provides more time for Iran’s nuclear efforts. If we make the appropriately humble assumption that our Iran intelligence is not perfect, then we must acknowledge that Iran may be even closer to weaponization than we believe. And every additional day simply increases Tehran’s advantage.
In the race between the West’s sanctions/negotiations track and Tehran’s nuclear weapons track, the nuclear effort is much closer to the finish line. Since all other options have failed repeatedly, we must at some very near point face a basic question: Are we prepared to use force at a time of our choosing and through means optimal for us rather than for Iran’s air defenses, or will we simply allow Iran to have nuclear weapons under the delusion it can be contained and deterred? The clock is ticking, and the centrifuges are spinning.
John Bolton, ambassador to the United Nations during 2005-06, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
This post first appeared in The Weekly Standard.