Guest columnSanctions unlikely to affect Iran’s nuclear aim

By Leonard A. Cole

Published 5 April 2012

The likelihood of economic sanctions persuading the Iranian leadership to abandon its quest for nuclear weapons is very low; the record of economic sanctions is not good: long-standing international sanctions remain in place against North Korea, Ivory Coast, and Somalia without noticeable effects on their policies; embargoes against Serbia and Libya ended, as with Iraq, only after military intervention forced change

After long refusing to negotiate about its nuclear program, Iran has reversed itself. Talks with American and European representatives are scheduled to begin on 13 April in Ankara, Turkey. Still, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is skeptical about the outcome. Questioning the regime’s claim that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, she has vowed that the United States is “determined to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”  Her skepticism echoes that of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s, which in November 2011 reported the Iranian program was consistent with the development of nuclear explosives. The preeminent though unresolved question remains: what to do if Iran refuses to change its nuclear course.

Sensible observers agree that a nuclear Iran would be a geo-political nightmare. President Obama has affirmed as well that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would be “unacceptable.” A nuclear-armed Iran would pose a mortal threat to Israel, would enlarge its toolbox as a sponsor of terrorism, and prompt other states also to go nuclear. But opinions differ about how soon Iran will have the capability to produce a bomb and what must be done to stop it.

Despite three years of urging by the Obama administration the Iranians have refused to curb their program. Their centrifuges continue to spin out enriched uranium without pause. The growing volume of material can easily be further enriched to bomb-quality standards in a matter of months.

Recently tightened economic sanctions by the United States and others have goaded Iranian leaders to agree to the talks. But based both on Iran’s past behavior and the historical ineffectiveness of sanctions, the chances that non-military pressure will alter the regime’s behavior seem slim to none.

Since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, the ayatollah-run regime has never ceased its hostility to the United States. Outright belligerency began in November of that year when Islamist students took over the U.S. embassy and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. Two years later, Iranian-backed terrorists struck twice at American targets in Lebanon. In April 1983 they bombed the American embassy in Beirut, and in October the U.S. military barracks there, killing 244 servicemen.

During the past decade, Iranian-backed forces have been responsible for numerous American battlefield casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Iran’s provision of arms and training to Hamas and Hezbollah has fueled the group’s terrorist activities against Israel, America’s principal ally in the Middle East.) While the United States may not