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Sanctions Against Iran Must be Allowed More Time to Bite

Posted: 5/03/2012 08:46

There is a narrative currently gaining primacy vis-à-vis Iran's nuclear program. It proposes that Tehran is determined to acquire the capabilities to develop a nuclear weapon; that the Islamic Republic's intentions, once this threshold is reached, are malign; that the fallout for regional security generally and Israel specifically would be catastrophic; that the window of opportunity to avert this forecast becoming reality is dwindling; and that the most feasible option of preventing this scenario is a pre-emptive military strike. This narrative is accurate, up to a point.

Tehran has conducted parts of its nuclear enrichment program under a cloak of secrecy and is an exemplar of obfuscation when dealing with the International Atomic Energy Agency. The consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran in one of the most volatile regions in the world would be disastrous, sparking off a nuclear arms race, emboldening terrorist proxy groups in the region, and disrupting global oil and energy markets. We should be sceptical, despite the rhetoric, that Tehran genuinely intends to "wipe Israel off the map" - it would be the largest mass suicide note in history. Perception often trumps reality, however, and the presence of a perceived nuclear-armed existential threat would be unacceptable to Israel and its staunch ally, America.

Where this purportedly linear narrative begins to weaken, however, is when it comes to advancing a strategy that would prevent the scenario outlined above being realised. Today, parliamentary elections are being held in Iran. It is the first time Iranians have gone to the polls since the disputed presidential elections in 2009 when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was returned to office for a second term. Protests against the result amidst allegations of fraud were met with a government crackdown on dissenting voices.

This week's elections take place in a climate of political infighting between conservative factions loyal to President Ahmadinejad and those supporting the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.

The two figureheads have fallen out recently amidst a jostling for power - there are suggestions Khamenei is considering abolishing the post of president at the next election - but whatever the outcome from the parliamentary elections, Tehran's commitment to its nuclear programme is unlikely to change. What might induce them, however, to consider engaging in genuine negotiations and allowing unfettered access to nuclear inspectors, is the deteriorating economic situation in Iran.

A swathe of sanctions targeting Iran's oil industry and restricting its banking and finance operations have begun to bite and bite hard. The Iranian currency, the rial, has lost half its value since September, many banks are experiencing capital shortages, inflation is soaring, and import firms are finding it very difficult to obtain outside lines of credit. A recent EU oil embargo, after a grace period of several months to allow markets to adjust, will starve Tehran of further revenue. The unemployment rate last year was 13% but many believe the real figure to be much higher.

As the economy deteriorates further we can expect to see popular unrest to spring up once more. Most Iranians are rallied behind the country's nuclear program. Why should a sovereign country with a proud and rich history, they argue, not be allowed its own nuclear capabilities, when other, more unstable and militarily aggressive states, are allowed to continue their programs with impunity? But it is unlikely Tehran will be able to endlessly quell popular grievances by appealing to the threat of the 'Great Satan' and championing the need for an expensive nuclear program.

Iran may acquire the bomb before any mass unrest can remove the Islamic Republic and there is no guarantee that whatever regime may succeed the current leadership will be more amenable to renouncing the country's nuclear aspirations. But in that window, before Iran enters a "zone of immunity", we must give economic sanctions an opportunity to bite harder whilst maintaining diplomatic channels that allow Tehran to save face - backing the regime into a corner to extract a humiliating climb down will be counter-productive. A nuclear-armed Iran is a worrying prospect but we are still several steps away from the conclusion proposed by the earlier narrative that a pre-emptive strike is our best viable option.