Sanctions unlikely to affect Iran’s nuclear aim

consider itself at war with Iran, Iranian behavior hardly suggests the reverse is true.

Any hope for a successful outcome of the upcoming negotiations lies in the supposition that the Iranian leadership will be sensible and yield to further pressure short of military intervention. Here the administration offers mixed messages. Contrary to Secretary Clinton’s skepticism, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, seems to hold a more sanguine view of the regime’s sensibility.  The Iranian regime “is a rational actor,” he said. This implies that Iran would permit verification that its program is not weapons-bound rather than suffer further diplomatic and economic pressure. But expecting sanctions to force policy change is improbable by any historical measure.

Examples abound. The United States and others have sustained an embargo against Cuba for more than fifty years. Most Arab countries have maintained a boycott of Israel since its establishment in 1948. The United Nations imposed a decade-long embargo on Iraq that ended only after Saddam Hussein’s regime suffered military defeat in 2003.  At most, those sanctions caused some shortages and inconvenience, though in no instance a change of policy. Efforts elsewhere to influence behavior by diplomatic or economic pressure have proved equally futile. 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.

One of few presumptive exceptions was the peaceful dissolution of South Africa’s apartheid policy in 1994. World pressure on the country helped move its white population to support suffrage for all citizens.  But South Africa’s democratic electoral structure, though limited largely to whites, had long been in place and not comparable to Iran’s Islamist-dominated authoritarian system. The ruling mullahs are no more likely to yield to economic pressure than have the North Koreans.

Sanctioned countries generally establish backchannels to receive food, fuel, and other necessities. Iran’s economy is reportedly suffering because of pressures from the West, but the country hardly needs secret channels to sustain a flow of essential goods. Russia, China, and others maintain very public commercial relations despite American protestation.

What exactly will the United States do if Iran remains unwilling to open its facilities for full inspection and provide the evidence called for by the West?  If Obama and Clinton’s promises of prevention are genuine, the only option will be to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities. But despite those promises, the administration’s actions bespeak hesitancy. Emphasizing uncertainty of success and the condemnation that an attack might provoke, the government has counseled Israel to refrain from military action at this point.

Which raises the question whether at any point these caveats would be less salient.  And when, if ever, the administration would see them as less of an obstacle to armed intervention.

Leonard A. Cole, an expert on bioterrorism and on terror medicine, teaches at Rutgers University and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey