Sanction Iran Now
With our urgent efforts to block Iran's continued drive toward nuclear weapons, you'd think any further evasion by Iran would prompt a firm response. Just last week, the U.S., Russia, France and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) gave Tehran until last Friday to accept a generous negotiated offer. The deal was to take most of Iran's low-enriched uranium--which Iran might otherwise enrich further to make a bomb--and convert it into fuel to run its Tehran Research Reactor. Friday came and went without an official Iranian reply. Almost as predictably, White House officials indicated they would wait a bit longer.
Assuming the U.S. and its allies are serious about preventing Iran from getting the bomb, though, waiting would be a mistake. Instead, whatever Iran does, we should impose additional sanctions and continue to do so until Iran suspends its nuclear fuel-making activities and allows the IAEA to flood the country with nuclear inspectors.
First, as long as Iran continues to operate its uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, it will be no more than 12 months away from producing all the low-enriched uranium feedstock it needs to make its first bomb's worth of highly enriched uranium. This remains so even if Iran approves the fuel-swap proposal negotiated last week (and Iran's foreign minister has already suggested that Iran may want to reduce the rate and amount uranium it wants to ship out). That's why the United Nations Security Council has long insisted that Iran suspend all of its nuclear fuel-making activities: The world needs to be sure that Iran, which has hidden its nuclear fuel-making activities twice from the IAEA (once at Natanz and last month at Qom) is out of the nuclear bomb-making business before letting it operate any nuclear program.
Again, if pressure is what got Iran to negotiate this fuel-swap proposal, even more pressure will be needed to get it to suspend its known nuclear fuel making activities. Alternatively, if we fail to push Tehran to uphold the U.N.'s earlier demands, Iran's anxious neighbors are even more likely to develop "peaceful" nuclear options of their own.
Second, although we might doubt sanctions against Iran will work, Iran's mullahs don't. In fact, they are more concerned about losing political control than any other time since the 1978 revolution. That's why some are actually open to swapping out most of Iran's enriched uranium: Although it would temporarily limit Iran's ready access to bomb material, implementing the deal would make it far more difficult for the West to inflict additional sanctions (much less justify Israeli bombing). This, in turn, would give the mullahs the breathing space they need to consolidate their shaky rule.
They might also indefinitely deflect U.S. and allied efforts to shut down Iran's nuclear fuel making plants. If so, we could see a revolutionary government in power next year that has completely crushed its political opposition and yet skirted being sanctioned by the West. This would only consolidate the political clout of Iran's hawkish hardliners even further. Also, by next October, the new government could garner significant amounts of uranium from the fresh research reactor fuel fashioned in France and Russia, and from its own enrichment plant at Natanz, which it could enrich further to make nuclear weapons.
Finally, Israel might bomb Iran. Fearful of the possible blowback, both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have warned Israel against this. Israel, loathe to face a nuclear weapons-ready Iran alone, demurred. It would prefer that the U.S. and others isolate and penalize Iran's misbehavior. It clearly was elated when the U.N. finally demanded that Iran suspend all of its nuclear fuel-making activities. But that was three years ago. Assessing the fuel-swap idea last week, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak noted that it would only "result in the legitimization of [Iran's] uranium enrichment" program, which, he insisted, must be stopped. Bottom line: Holding our breath to assuage Tehran today risks making Israel feel stranded and provoking it to act by itself.
What, then, should we do?
Before accepting any Nobel Peace Prize (for, among other things, encouraging democracy and human rights), President Obama should speak out in support of human rights and democracy in Iran. Given the State Department's bizarre defunding of several Iranian human rights projects, the White House might announce the award of far larger grants for the same purposes to several other worthy organizations working on these issues.
The Senate, which will mark up Iranian sanctions legislation in the Banking Committee this Thursday, should hurry to move the bill to a vote. Similar legislation, which focuses on penalizing firms that supply Iran with refined gasoline, has already passed in the House. Although far from comprehensive, these sanctions will have some impact, and in any case will be blamed by the mullahs for a good number of Iran's many economic failings. Signing them into law this year would be a useful first step.
As for reassuring Israel, the U.S. could try to get Russia to come clean on how Russian scientists may be helping Iran's nuclear weapons program. In September, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu reportedly gave Russian Prime Minister Putin a classified list of Russian scientists Israel believes is helping Iran. The U.S. ought to determine how accurate Israel's list is, and assuming it is at all correct, work with Israel and others to get Russia to pull these scientists out of Iran. Certainly, without clarity on this front, progress on reaching further major bilateral agreements with Russia should be put on hold.
Similarly, congressional funding of civilian nuclear cooperation with Middle Eastern states, especially those trading the most with Iran, such as the United Arab Emirates, should require presidential certification that these states are fully complying with U.N. sanctions against Iran. The president should also certify their willingness to work with the U.S. and others in imposing additional sanctions on Iran, even if the U.N. initially is unable to do so. Finally, the U.S. should make sure these requirements are also imposed by other major nuclear suppliers, starting with France.
More will be needed to pressure Iran, but these minimal suggestions are among the easiest. Indeed, if we can't act on these, no agreement with Iran, much less the current fuel swap, is likely to save us, whereas increasing pressure on Iran just might.