Iran Sanctions: Built to Fail

Conditions for lifting sanctions go way beyond anything having to do with Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program, making it impossible for Iran to extricate itself – this could be intentional, making the military "option" a necessity.

More than 90 US senators recently sent a letter to President Obama urging him to slap further sanctions on Iran  – unfortunately, like the many existing sanctions on Iran, the proposed one also has no clear realistic objectives. Congress needs to address what the goals of these sanctions are, if for nothing else than to simply know whether or not they are even working. e.g.: Is the goal to dissuade Iran from pursuing its nuclear enrichment program? Is it to punish the Iranian government or to pressure it into regime change?  

Most importantly, what exactly does Iran need to do to have the sanctions lifted? Unfortunately, the answer to these questions are more opaque than the Iranian nuclear program itself.  

The web of sanctions on Iran is now so thick and convoluted that Houdini himself couldn’t find a way out of the multiple straitjackets. Not only have UN sanctions been imposed, but the EU and individual countries – e.g. the US, Canada, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Israel, and India – have each slapped on additional layers of unilateral sanctions as well.  

Conditions for lifting these sanctions go way beyond anything having to do with Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program. The West has essentially painted itself into a corner with sanctions that were relatively simple to enact but will prove hard, if not impossible, to lift – no matter what Iran does with its nuclear program. The situation may – intentionally or not – become a prelude to war. 

For instance, the US sanctions can only be lifted after the President certifies to Congress "that the government of Iran has: (1) released all political prisoners and detainees; (2) ceased its practices of violence and abuse of Iranian citizens engaging in peaceful political activity; (3) conducted a transparent investigation into the killings and abuse of peaceful political activists in Iran and prosecuted those responsible; and (4) made progress toward establishing an independent judiciary."

And – just in case those conditions were not unrealistically stringent and comprehensive –  the President has to further certify that "the government of Iran has ceased supporting acts of international terrorism and no longer satisfies certain requirements for designation as a state sponsor of terrorism; and [that] Iran has ceased the pursuit, acquisition, and development of nuclear, biological, chemical, and ballistic weapons." 

Many US allies, such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, could not satisfy all these conditions. 

So even if Iran were to stop all uranium enrichment and dump all their centrifuges into the Persian Gulf, shutter their nuclear program entirely, and re-task all their nuclear physicists to work in Chocolate factories, Iran would still be sanctioned by the US Congress. 

The UN Security Council (UNSC) sanctions are only a little better than the unilateral US ones in that they have only marginally less impossible goals.  

While the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would be happy to simply get slightly more transparency regarding Iran’s nuclear program, nothing short of stopping all uranium enrichment will satisfy the arbitrary conditions of the UNSC sanctions. The Security Council has "affirmed that it would suspend the sanctions if, and so long as, Iran suspended all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, as verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)…" This is clearly something that will not happen since virtually all the Iranian polity and people support their sovereign right to enrich uranium  – just like Argentina, Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Israel, Japan, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the US do. 

So while the IAEA initially referred Iran to the UNSC over a lack of transparency, the UNSC took that opportunity to slap on additional ad hoc demands: this is like being stopped for a traffic violation and then having your car confiscated for no good reason, other than that you were speeding and can’t be trusted with cars – forever! While Iran is probably willing and able to satisfy IAEA demands for greater transparency, this concession will not satisfy UNSC sanctions that require Iran to suspend enrichment indefinitely.  

This is possibly why Iran feels it has little to gain by cooperating with the IAEA at this stage: even if it makes the IAEA happy, the UNSC – and various unilateral – sanctions still be fully in effect. So these sanctions are, in fact, a disincentive for Iran to cooperate with the IAEA: if they are going to be sanctioned by the Security Council anyway, why should they cooperate with the IAEA? 

Iranian uranium enrichment is not illegal, nor can it be equated with a bomb factory. The process is used to generate the fuel for nuclear power plants, and for making radioisotopes for medical and agricultural uses – and, yes, it can be used to make the raw material used in nuclear weapons as well. But six ex-ambassadors of Iran agree that there is nothing illegal about Iran’s nuclear program.

Mohamed El-Baradei, the Nobel Peace Prize recipient who spent more than a decade as the director of the IAEA, recently told investigative journalist Seymour Hersh that he had not "seen a shred of evidence that Iran has been weaponizing, in terms of building nuclear-weapons facilities and using enriched materials … I don’t believe Iran is a clear and present danger. All I see is the hype about the threat posed by Iran."  

Far from marching towards making a nuclear bomb, Iran has repeatedly offered to place additional restrictions on its nuclear program well in excess of its legal obligations, including opening the program entirely to joint US participation and limiting the number of centrifuges they operate. More recently, they agreed to a Turkish-Brazilian brokered deal to export their enriched uranium for fabrication into reactor fuel abroad instead of enriching at home. In each case, the West (US and EU countries) torpedoed or ignored these good-faith offers.  

The most objective reading of Iran’s intentions is that it may be stockpiling enough low enriched uranium (LEU) to give itself a "break-out" option to weaponize in the future – unfortunately for the US government and its allies, there is nothing illegal about that. (Note that even the 20% enriched uranium is considered LEU by the IAEA). To be clear: the fault lies with NPT that allows such behavior – not with Iran.  Either signatory nations follow the NPT – warts and all – or they should meet to hammer out a new treaty. 

Further poisoning the waters is the questionable legality of the UNSC sanctions themselves. Such sanctions are applicable under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter –  but only after a determination of  "the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression" is found, something which has never been done in Iran’s case.  

But what if Iran does cheat at the last moment, and race to the bomb? The US National Defense University (NDU) looked into this "nightmare scenario" and concluded that they "judge, and nearly all experts consulted agree, that Iran would not, as a matter of state policy, give up its control of such weapons to terrorist organizations and risk direct US or Israeli retribution." And the study stated that the "United States has options short of war that it could employ to deter a nuclear-armed Iran and dissuade further proliferation." It ventured that Iran may have desired nuclear weapons in the past because it feels strategically isolated and that "possession of such weapons would give the regime legitimacy, respectability, and protection." That is, for deterrence, not aggression. Indeed, there is no reason to believe that the Iranian regime is suicidal and would kick off a nuclear war with the US or Israel.   

Since the time of the NDU study in 2005, new information has surfaced from the US Intelligence community that Iran wrapped up its fledgling nuclear weapons research in 2003.

In light of these facts, the US, EU, the UN, and other countries should re-evaluate what they hope to accomplish with their increasingly tough sanctions policies. Currently, their sanctions are not directed at Iran’s nuclear program and, in fact, would remain in place even if Iran’s nuclear program disappeared overnight.  

As Barbara Slavin reports, the latest proposed US sanctions "would punish ordinary Iranians, something the Obama administration has said it wants to avoid, and could undermine what had been a growing international consensus against the Iranian nuclear program….it could also jack up oil prices."  

Until the goals of the various sanctions are made more crisp it will be impossible to say if they are working, or whether they will ever work. But their dysfunctional nature and inherent opacity may be seen as an benefit by some Congressional hawks: as with Iraq a decade ago, by being able to say that sanctions have not "worked" they can justify moving on to the next, and last resort – war.

Author: Yousaf Butt

Yousaf Butt is a nuclear physicist and is currently serving as a scientific consultant to the Federation of American Scientists on national security issues. Previously, he served on the Committee on International Security and Arms Control at the US National Academy of Sciences.