Options other than sanctions to force Iran's nuclear compliance

Sanctions must not be our only option Photo: AP Photo

WASHINGTON, DC, January 9, 2012 - If by some miracle Iran is forced to give up on its nuclear ambitions, the credit for that success must go to the policy we have implemented, a policy of tightening the screws slowly but surely, beginning with threats, moving on to sanctions, then to crippling sanctions, all the while brandishing the possibility of using violence to make our point. 

Currently, we are the stage of serious sanctions, and though we wish for the best, it behooves us to ask: what are the chances that this measure will succeed? And even if it does succeed, how long will the success last?

Sanctions rely on the hope that the victim will either submit or crumble under the weight of the misfortunes we inflict. And perhaps, the Iranians lack the will to grit their teeth and go on defying the international community; but if history is any guide, it will show that, whatever faults the Iranians may have in their national character, lack of courage is not one of them.

But let us assume that the sanctions do force Iran to sign a deal. Would that be the end of our troubles with that country? 

In the business between states, a signature on a contract cannot be deemed good if the incentives which brought it about in the first place are no longer there. If sanctions bring Iran to the table, and the relaxing of sanctions induces them to sign, only the assurance that the sanctions will be re-implemented in case of a breach will ensure that the agreement will be kept.

Now will the P5+1 (The Security Council plus Germany) react in this forceful manner against any and every breach of the agreement? Perhaps, if the breach is blatant. But what if the Iranians renege on only a portion of the contract?  Or what if they do something completely unmentioned by the agreement but just as injurious to it – such as testing ballistic missiles?

Our dealings with North Korea should have taught us that an agreement to stop nuclear enrichment is not the same as actually stopping nuclear enrichment, and that such an agreement, if it is ever signed, will be the beginning, not the end, of our efforts. Yet so much of our national debate has focused on the details of what we should offer to Iran in a purported deal - what sanctions should be lifted, what aid given etc.. We are presenting Iran with a choice between good and bad, between progress and oblivion, between relief and poverty.

The danger of this approach is that Iran may seek to preserve the very asset which brought about this offer in the first place: its nuclear program. Perhaps we should present the Iranians, not with a choice between good and bad, but rather a choice between two evils. In the following lines, I will present a course of action which will do just that. 


The Option of Nuclear Enrichment

The level of a country’s nuclear enrichment is as much a measure of military power as the range of its missiles or the number of its artillery. A true balance of power can be maintained in the Middle East only if Iran’s capacity to turn out a nuclear weapon is balanced by a parallel capacity among its neighboring states.

Recently the Obama Administration sold 60 billion dollars worth of arms to Saudi Arabia.  While this does almost nothing to balance Iran’s ability to enrich uranium, it does skew the balance of conventional forces even more in Saudi Arabia’s favor, giving Iran a newfound incentive to acquire nuclear weapons to compensate for its inferiority in that arena. Let us not forget that, during the Cold War, it was partly the inferiority of our conventional forces in Europe which forced us to rely on the threat of massive nuclear retaliation to maintain a balance.

If nuclear enrichment is balanced by nuclear enrichment, Iran will know that the day it acquires a nuclear weapon its neighbors will too. The Arab states may already have started on such a course. Saudi Arabia announced its own nuclear enrichment program with a justification nearly identical to that of Iran, and it is not unlikely that the other Arab states will follow suit. The true risk of a nuclear Iran is not a nuclear Iran itself, which we can balance, but a nuclear Middle East. In this prospect there is both opportunity and danger. If Washington chooses to sit on its hands and watch the enrichment race from afar, it will face the prospect of four or five nuclear powers in one unstable region. The question for the United States is not so much if the Arab states will respond but when and how.

It is time we consider the possibility of helping in the nuclear enrichment of our allies in the Middle East, so that the “medical benefits” of enriched uranium are made available to our friends as well as our enemies. Would the Iranians continue to enrich uranium if they knew that their neighbors would match them at each turn?  Would they then turn out a nuclear weapon only to surround themselves with nuclear powers?

There is a legitimate worry here that one of these states may be overthrown and its nuclear program will then fall into the hands of extremist elements. But is that risk mitigated if a Pakistan or a China should become the main supplier of nuclear technology to the Middle East?

Let us consider the problem from another angle – the angle of containment. The “containment” we practiced during the Cold War was not some nebulous application of “pressure” here and there. We stationed nuclear weapons on the soil of our NATO allies. Two of them, France and Britain, were independent nuclear powers, and countries such as Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands housed American nuclear weapons which, under an arrangement called “nuclear sharing,” would become available to the host nation in the event of national emergency. Thus the host nations would benefit from the advantages of being a nuclear power without actually becoming one.

An analogous arrangement can be created in the Middle East – this time, not so much for nuclear weapons but for nuclear enrichment. Such a policy, which I call enrichment sharing, would allow the United States to help the Arab states enrich uranium in step with Iran while maintaining control over the process. If we join in the process and make our assistance indispensable, we can prevent a scenario in which there are five independent nuclear powers in one unstable region.

No policy, however brilliantly conceived, can be completely shorn of its harmful effects, and this one is no exception.  By helping our allies to enrich uranium, we are admitting that it is acceptable for any country in the region to collect the fissile material necessary for the building of an atomic weapon. That this will have massive implications for the cause of non-proliferation goes without saying. Therefore, this policy should be implemented only in a world in which all hope of stopping Iran from enriching uranium is lost. Such a world is not yet ours, but it is quickly approaching, and it will soon be upon us if we insist on continuing along our present course.

Some like to say that we must seek a diplomatic solution, but statements such as these misuse the word diplomacy and confuse it with negotiation or peaceful measures. Diplomacy is an inseparable component of any policy, violent or peaceful; and whether we arrive at our ends by the stick or the carrot, we will arrive at them diplomatically; even our failures will be diplomatic.

Presidents Obama and Bush have both stated that “all options are on the table” when it comes to Iran. With all my respect for the Presidency intact, I must say that this statement is, at the moment, a gross untruth. Its meaning depends very much on what is meant by an “option.” If an option is any course of action that the mind of a presidential aide can dream up, then the statement is true, but also meaningless. In the real world, an option is a course of action which has a certain probability of success and, therefore, a certain probability of execution. An option with a probability of execution of zero is not an option, much less is it “on the table.” Only when these probabilities are significant enough to be recognized by the opposite number does an option become a card in the gambling game of diplomacy. Only then is it truly “on the table.”

At the moment, our only true option is the gradual escalation of sanctions. At the moment, neither the enrichment option nor a military option is truly an option. It must be the aim of our policy to turn these so-called options into bona fide options.

With the enrichment option, it is a simple matter of promising to our key allies that, at a certain point, they will be accorded the same level of enrichment that Iran insists on maintaining. The enrichment option then becomes a true option, and it will come in handy when haggling with our opposite number about whether or not they will keep a certain amount of enriched uranium, for if they insist on keeping that amount, we will then be able to counter with the proposition that the same amount will be accorded to their friends, the Arabs. 

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Benjamin Ra

Benjamin Ra is a recent graduate of Sciences Po Paris. He writes mainly on foreign policy and is currently residing in South Korea. 

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