Our intel suggests that Iran can build a nuclear weapon in about a year. The Obama administration that that’s time for economic sanctions to work and to convince Iran not to go ahead. This week, President Obama implored Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to go through with a preemptive attack on Iran’s nuclear development facilities. But is it true? If Iran is within a year of building a nuclear weapon, can sanctions work at all anymore?
Consider: for sanctions to work, the Iranian government must agree that the costs of those sanctions are greater than the gains from possessing nuclear weapons. Stipulate, arguendo, that the latest round of sanctions work insofar as oil sales are cut off, that Russia and China don’t continue to trade with Iran, simply bypassing the global financial network. What are those costs? Economic dislocation. High prices. Scarcity of goods. But no one dies. Everyone is safe.
Think about the sanctions that have been in place all these last several years: the Iranians don’t have any gasoline for their cars, for instance—and this one is largely self-inflicted. They’re major oil exporters, but they’ve made a conscious decision not to do any refining domestically. Food is expensive, the transportation network undermaintained and cumbersome to use. Internet, cell phone, etc. contact with the outside world for the general population is hard to achieve. Most goods beyond bare necessities are hard to come by, and their prices are very high. Yet their nuclear weapons development program is proceeding apace and has been all along. What are the gains? I’ll come back to these below.
Consider: why does Iran want nuclear weapons? It isn’t only for the status of being a nuclear power. There are three primary purposes for nuclear weapons. On the occasion of their first use, the reason was to hold down total casualties—both friendly and enemy—associated with invading a mountainous island nation. Later, the weapons’ purpose was in their existence: to deter attack by others, whether those others also were nuclear powers or not. The third reason for having nuclear weapons is to use them, and/or to give/sell them to surrogates who will use them.
In a 2005 interview with an American journalist, the then leader of Hezbollah (an Iranian proxy terror organization), Hussein al-Moussawi, said
We are not fighting so that you will offer us something. We are fighting to destroy you.
Moreover, the Iranian government is on record, repeatedly, as saying that they want to see Israel wiped off the map. They want to kill the Great Satan (i.e., us). It’s clear that Iran wants nuclear weapons to use them and/or to pass them to others who will use them.
For sanctions to have the effect on the Iranian government we expect them to have, the Iranian government has to think like we do. But they don’t think like us. Moreover, their tolerance for pain is higher than ours.
What will Iran gain from obtaining nuclear weapons? The destruction of Israel. Weapons to pass to surrogates for use within the United States—and Europe—to kill as many of us and them as can be done—even to destroy us.
Will sanctions work on Iran? Can Iran be dissuaded without military force, in this environment and with this mind set, from obtaining nuclear weapons?