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Leverage Through Sanctions Not a Long-Term Strategy

Last week, the U.S took a page out of its well-worn foreign policy playbook and imposed new sanctions on North Korea. The similarities between the U.S approach to North Korea and Iran are striking, centering on a strategy of sanctions, isolation, and containment.

It can be argued that the U.S has had more success isolating North Korea — though a lot of the responsibility for that also lies with Kim Jong Il (something the hardliners in Tehran should be aware of).  But there is one crucial difference in trying to apply this same model of containment and isolation to Iran, and that is Tehran’s indispensable geostrategic importance.

The Persian Gulf is and will continue to be perhaps the most vital region in the world. Iran is the world’s fourth largest oil producer, thereby providing the government substantial oil revenue, and giving them a key opportunity to ensure that sanctions never fully seal off the country’s economy, as there will also be a buyer for Iranian oil.

For that and other reasons, a policy that depends on isolation and  containment as the sole approach for dealing with Iran is doomed to fail.

By looking into the history of sanctions imposed on Iran, and by spending time in Iran, it’s not difficult to realize that sanctions are not as persuasive as many in Washington might like to believe. Under nearly three decades of sanctions, Iran went from having no enrichment capacity, to creating an indigenous reactor and installing more than 8000 centrifuges. Three rounds of international sanctions did not stymie their efforts to build the planned enrichment facility in Qom. Sanctions did not impede the IRGC’s ballistic missile program that is continually evolving.

Washington’s motto: “Leverage through Sanctions” clearly isn’t working — and it’s not because we haven’t made sanctions “crippling” enough.  It’s because Iran refuses to be bludgeoned into submission.  If a country like Iran faces a choice between economic hardship and absolute humiliation, it’s likely to choose hardship every time.  But if given a chance to save face, it’s very likely that Iran will play ball.  Diplomatic engagement offers a better way forward than sanctions ever will, precisely because diplomacy offers a chance to convey privately all of the ways Iran stands to gain by acceding to the demands of the international community.  It will be a give and take, with concessions on both sides, but it offers a much greater chance of success than sanctions, pressure, and bullying.

What’s more, a diplomatic solution offers a long-term strategy, while sanctions — even if successful — only offer a short-term change of behavior.  Think about it: if the US can make sanctions so painful that Iran gives up its nuclear program, isn’t it likely that future generations will resent that outside pressure being forced upon their country?  Throughout history, this pattern of behavior has given rise to nationalist movements that produce greater degrees of instability in the long run than the original conflict ever would have.

Alternatively, negotiated settlements offer the chance of a win-win, with no loss of national prestige and possibly even a net benefit for the country overall.

  • 24 December 2009
  • Posted By Patrick Disney
  • Diplomacy, Events in Iran, Nuclear file, Sanctions, UN, US-Iran War

Merry Christmas. Bomb Iran.

Stunning.  That’s the only word to describe what was printed in the once-respected op-ed page of the New York Times today. 

Alan Kuperman argues in his op-ed titled There’s Only One Way to Stop Iran, that

In the face of failed diplomacy, eschewing force is tantamount to appeasement. We have reached the point where air strikes are the only plausible option with any prospect of preventing Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.

Strange that the author could arrive at this conclusion a week before the Dec. 31 deadline for Iran to accept the West’s nuclear proposal.  It’s almost as if he had made up his mind already.  

Let’s look at his reasoning, such as it is.  Kuperman argues that the West’s nuclear proposal to refuel the Tehran Research Reactor was not a clever idea with benefits for both parties, as most experts believe, but instead was a boondoggle that threatened the security of the US and would have given Iran “a head start” toward building a nuclear bomb.  It is good that the deal was not adopted, he argues, because it would have only postponed the really important and only remaining effective option for the US to pursue: multiple airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities. 

Even worse, Kuperman fumes, the plan would have actually “fostered proliferation” by allowing Iran to continue operating the research reactor, which he says could provide valuable knowledge for a weapons program.  Of course, it is probably safe to assume that the IAEA was aware that the fuel could be used to operate the reactor…what with that being the whole idea of the deal and all.  But apparently, the UN’s atomic agency doesn’t share Kuperman’s definition of “fostering proliferation.”

He goes on:

While Iran permits international inspections at its declared enrichment plant at Natanz, it ignores United Nations demands that it close the plant, where it gains the expertise needed to produce weapons-grade uranium at other secret facilities like the nascent one recently uncovered near Qom.” 

Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face.  Kuperman seems to be one of the few remaining nonproliferation professionals who actually believe transparency is a bad thing.  Suspending enrichment does no good if Iran starts up a covert facility that can’t be inspected; on the other hand, inspections can virtually ensure enrichment activity is not used for a weapon, and if Tehran tries, they will be detected. 

Kuperman also says that Tehran rejected the deal because of domestic political turmoil.  But the truth is more complicated than the startlingly concise explanation –“Ahmadinejad reneged” — that Kuperman provides.  See Ray Takeyh’s explanation of how Iran’s internal national security apparatus scuttled the deal.  Also, how many times do we have to say this? Ahmadinejad does not control Iran’s nuclear program–the Supreme Leader does.

After all that, Kuperman finally gets to his real point.  Start the music…“bomb, bomb, bomb Iran…”

Since peaceful carrots and sticks cannot work, and an invasion would be foolhardy, the United States faces a stark choice: military air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities or acquiescence to Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.

The risks of the latter are obvious, he says: “Iran supplies Islamist terrorist groups in violation of international embargoes.”  Supplies them of what?  Ominously, he doesn’t say, suggesting that if Iran were to possess WMD, they would hand it over in a heartbeat.  Of course, this ignores the fact that Iran has had chemical and biological weapons for two decades and is yet to deliver them to terrorist proxies who most certainly want them.  “Even President Ahmadinejad’s domestic opponents support this weapons traffic.”  Huh?  You mean the Green Movement, whose chants say “Not Gaza, nor Lebanon; I give my life for Iran”? 

At last, Kuperman concedes that an aerial assault on Iran’s nuclear facilities might not work, and it might impose heavy costs.  But history suggests that it could work, and is therefore “worth a try.”  For evidence, he lists episodes such as the 1981 Israeli strike on Iraq and the subsequent Gulf War (the success of which Kuperman somehow manages to claim was only confirmed by the 2003 Iraq war, which apparently made the entire thing worth it).  “Analogously,” he says, “Iran’s atomic sites might need to be bombed more than once to persuade Tehran to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons.”  Because the more times we bomb them, the more they’ll see things our way…

Kuperman’s rationale for bombing Iran is not new; it is just intellectually sloppier than most others.  But that doesn’t mean that it should be taken for granted.  If anything, the fact that the New York Times printed this column before the laughably short deadline for diplomacy is up just illustrates the sorry state of discourse in the US on how to deal with Iran.  And that is exactly the plan for those who wish to hasten a US-Iran war: drive the debate so far to the fringe that reasonable proposals are discounted and the irrational seems like the only option.

update: For the record, I penned this blog post on a plane between DC and Texas, long before I read Heather Hurlburt’s scathing piece about the same article.  Kudos, Heather.

update 2: Wow, nice to see I wasn’t alone with this.  See also Matt Duss, Joe Klein, Steve Saideman and Dan Drezner.   Marc Lynch says: “This kind of sustained pushback is exactly what is needed to prevent this dangerous idea from being mainstreamed.”

  • 29 September 2009
  • Posted By Patrick Disney
  • Diplomacy, Nuclear file, UN

Iran scheduling timeline for inspections at Qom site

Qom site

Before even sitting down for talks with the P5+1 on Thursday, Iran is reportedly planning to allow IAEA inspections at the newly-revealed enrichment facility near Qom.

From PressTV:

Iran says it will soon inform the International Atomic Energy Agency of a timetable for inspection of its recently-announced nuclear facility.

Head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization Ali Akbar Salehi broke the news in an exclusive interview with Press TV late on Monday.

Iran has informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that the new plant will produce enriched uranium of up to 5 percent, consistent with its nuclear energy program.

Salehi noted that the plant is under construction within the framework of the IAEA regulations, saying “Iran has taken all the precautionary steps to safeguard its nuclear facilities.”

The Iranian nuclear chief said the attacks and accusations leveled by the United States and its Western allies during last week’s summit of the G-20 in Pittsburgh were pre-planned.

He also accused the major powers of politicizing Iran’s nuclear activities.

Salehi’s claim had to have been met with laughter among Washington policymakers and the IAEA alike, given that the bedrock of nuclear “safeguards” is a stringent inspections regime.  Constructing a facility in secret and not declaring it open for IAEA inspectors can hardly be characterized as “taking all the precautionary steps.”

Sign the Petition


7,350 signatures

Tell Google: Stop playing Persian Gulf name games!

May 14, 2012
Larry Page
Chief Executive Officer
Google Inc.
1600 Amphitheatre Parkway
Mountain View, California 94043

Dear Mr. Page:

It has come to our attention that Google has begun omitting the title of the Persian Gulf from its Google Maps application. This is a disconcerting development given the undisputed historic and geographic precedent of the name Persian Gulf, and the more recent history of opening up the name to political, ethnic, and territorial disputes. However unintentionally, in adopting this practice, Google is participating in a dangerous effort to foment tensions and ethnic divisions in the Middle East by politicizing the region’s geographic nomenclature. Members of the Iranian-American community are overwhelmingly opposed to such efforts, particularly at a time when regional tensions already have been pushed to the brink and threaten to spill over into conflict. As the largest grassroots organization in the Iranian-American community, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) calls on Google to not allow its products to become propaganda tools and to immediately reinstate the historically accurate, apolitical title of “Persian Gulf” in all of its informational products, including Google Maps.

Historically, the name “Persian Gulf” is undisputed. The Greek geographer and astronomer Ptolemy referencing in his writings the “Aquarius Persico.” The Romans referred to the "Mare Persicum." The Arabs historically call the body of water, "Bahr al-Farsia." The legal precedent of this nomenclature is also indisputable, with both the United Nations and the United States Board of Geographic Names confirming the sole legitimacy of the term “Persian Gulf.” Agreement on this matter has also been codified by the signatures of all six bordering Arab countries on United Nations directives declaring this body of water to be the Persian Gulf.

But in the past century, and particularly at times of escalating tensions, there have been efforts to exploit the name of the Persian Gulf as a political tool to foment ethnic division. From colonial interests to Arab interests to Iranian interests, the opening of debate regarding the name of the Persian Gulf has been a recent phenomenon that has been exploited for political gain by all sides. Google should not enable these politicized efforts.

In the 1930s, British adviser to Bahrain Sir Charles Belgrave proposed to rename the Persian Gulf, “Arabian Gulf,” a proposal that was rejected by the British Colonial and Foreign offices. Two decades later, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company resurrected the term during its dispute with Mohammad Mossadegh, the Iranian Prime Minister whose battle with British oil interests would end in a U.S.-sponsored coup d'état that continues to haunt U.S.-Iran relations. In the 1960s, the title “Arabian Gulf” became central to propaganda efforts during the Pan-Arabism era aimed at exploiting ethnic divisions in the region to unite Arabs against non-Arabs, namely Iranians and Israelis. The term was later employed by Saddam Hussein to justify his aims at territorial expansion. Osama Bin Laden even adopted the phrase in an attempt to rally Arab populations by emphasizing ethnic rivalries in the Middle East.

We have serious concerns that Google is now playing into these efforts of geographic politicization. Unfortunately, this is not the first time Google has stirred controversy on this topic. In 2008, Google Earth began including the term “Arabian Gulf” in addition to Persian Gulf as the name for the body of water. NIAC and others called on you then to stop using this ethnically divisive propaganda term, but to no avail. Instead of following the example of organizations like the National Geographic Society, which in 2004 used term “Arabian Gulf” in its maps but recognized the error and corrected it, Google has apparently decided to allow its informational products to become politicized.

Google should rectify this situation and immediately include the proper name for the Persian Gulf in Google Maps and all of its informational products. The exclusion of the title of the Persian Gulf diminishes your applications as informational tools, and raises questions about the integrity and accuracy of information provided by Google.

We strongly urge you to stay true to Google’s mission – “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” – without distorting or politicizing that information. We look forward to an explanation from you regarding the recent removal of the Persian Gulf name from Google Maps and call on you to immediately correct this mistake.



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