Speculation in Israel about the possibility of a strike on Iran's nuclear program in the coming weeks has intensified, and not just because of Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney's tough talk in Jerusalem. Mr. Romney called for the U.S. and Israel to use "any and all measures" to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons — a position repeated virtually verbatim by U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta when he visited Israel a few days later. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this week that "time to resolve this peacefully is running out," even as theU.S. Congress was moving forward with new sanctions against Iran's oil industry and the shipping, insurance and banking sectors that facilitate it.
The United States' position is that military action against Iran should be a last resort, and for good reason. Whether a strike comes from Israeli or American forces, it would pose a great risk of sparking wider conflict in the Middle East without a guarantee that it will permanently crippleTehran'snuclear ambitions. That leaves the most pressing issue the question of whether sanctions will be enough to deter Iran in its quest for a weapon, and unfortunately, the lessons of history are not encouraging.
There's no doubt Tehran is feeling the pinch of the latest round of international diplomatic and trade restrictions, but such measures have never in the past succeeded in forcing a change in its behavior. The first U.S. sanctions against Tehran were imposed in 1979 in response to the Iranian hostage crisis, and there have been literally dozens United Nations resolutions and multilateral trade bans led by the U.S. since then. Yet if anything, the mullahs have only become more implacable in their hostility toward the West.
Iran's oil-based economy clearly is vulnerable to sanctions aimed at cutting off the flow of its economic life blood. Before the European Union boycott of Iranian oil went into effect last month, it was selling 3.55 million barrels of crude a day, 11 percent of OPEC's total. Oil sales accounted for about a fifth of its $352 billion annual GDP and some 50 percent of government revenues, as well as 80 percent of the country's exports.
The tighter sanctions imposed by the U.S. and others since the beginning of the year have caused the value of Iran's currency, the rial, to fall dramatically in recent months. That has caused prices to rise for basic commodities such as food and energy for ordinary Iranians, further slowing the economy.
Meanwhile, tough new restrictions on transactions involving Iran's central bank have made it harder for international companies to do business in the country. At the same time, oil revenues have been dropping as a result of the cutoff of British maritime insurance for tankers carrying Iranian crude. Recent reports suggest Iran is now storing millions of barrels of oil it can no longer sell on ships anchored in the Persian Gulf.
Nor is there much doubt that sanctions have crippled Iran's nuclear program by making it harder for it to acquire the specialized equipment and materials needed to build a weapons capability. In fact, sanctions have negatively impacted Iran's military capabilities more generally by reducing its access to products needed by the oil and energy sectors that fund its armed forces. The result has been that the country is becoming increasingly dependent on Russian and Chinese military aid.
But despite the sanctions' harsh economic impact on Iran, they appear to have had negligible political effect. Iran's leaders seem as determined as ever to pursue a nuclear program — though they continue to insist that it is for peaceful purposes only. It was Iran's insistence on Western recognition of its "right" to enrich uranium that led to the breakdown of two previous rounds of diplomatic talks this year, yet its negotiators have show no sign of backing off that demand.
In Israel, Mr. Panetta urged patience in order to give sanctions time to work. But in some ways the sanctions actually have worked at cross purposes to the goal of getting Iran to open up its nuclear activities to international monitoring. In the effort to evade sanctions, for example, much of the country's business is now conducted through smuggling, which paradoxically requires strong connections to the regime. The result has been a strengthening of the mullah's hold on the economy and a weakening of civil society.
It's also long been apparent that Tehran has exploited U.S. and Western desires for a negotiated settlement to buy time in which to continue its uranium enrichment program. Obviously that can't go on forever, but the Iranians have been remarkably successful in running out the clock by appearing to cooperate with Western negotiators, only to back out at the last minute.
It's an axiom of dictatorships that their leaders fear above all the loss of face. To lose face is to show weakness, and weakness inevitably leads to a loss of power. This is the situation that Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, Iran's closest ally in the Arab Middle East, now finds himself in, and no doubt Iran's leaders are determined to avoid his fate.
A nuclear-armed Iran would be an unacceptable threat to Israel, the United States and global security in general. Though Mr. Romney sought to frame his remarks on the subject as criticism of the Obama administration, they share that basic belief, and they share the resolve to take whatever actions are ultimately necessary. But for now, the Obama administration and Congress are taking the right course. It would take extraordinarily skillful U.S. diplomacy in conjunction with the tough global sanctions now in place to get Iran's leaders to back down, and there is no guarantee that such a course would work. But it is the course we must take simply because every other option would be worse.