The sad truth is that if Iran wants a nuclear weapon, it will likely eventually get one. So the United States should quit wasting valuable political capital beseeching, threatening, and horse-trading with China, Russia, and other UN Security Council members to incrementally ratchet up likely futile multilateral economic sanctions against Iran.
Economic sanctions rarely work at coercing the target nation when anything but modest goals are desired and can drag the sanctioning nation(s) and the target into an unexpected war. The most universal, comprehensive, and grinding sanctions in world history in the early 1990s failed to compel Saddam Hussein to withdraw his invasion forces from Kuwait. And getting Saddam out of Kuwait was a more modest goal than coercing a country to give up its quest for the “ultimate deterrent.” Furthermore, multilateral sanctions on Iran will never be that strong because Russia and China have substantial commercial relations with Tehran and have repeatedly watered down U.S. attempts for stronger measures. Even with stronger measures, sanctions often erode over time, as the target simply pays people to evade the sanctions.
When the sanctions erode or have no success in coercing the usually unachievable policy outcome from the target, political pressure often exists to escalate to war. In 1991, when the sanctions failed to budge Saddam’s forces from Kuwait, pressure for war increased and it eventually occurred. In the lead up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, one of the George W. Bush administration’s arguments was that the multilateral sanctions on Iraq, still in place, had eroded over time. In 1989, the George H.W. Bush administration imposed stringent financial sanctions on the regime of Panama’s Manuel Noriega. When those didn’t work, the typical pressure for stronger measures led to a U.S. invasion.
Thus, Turkey, which voted against more sanctions on Iran in the Security Council, is prescient when it fears that such measures could eventually lead to greater pressure for war. But would an aerial attack by Israel or the United States foil Iran’s nuclear program. Probably not. Neither Israel nor the United States likely knows where all the targets are located. Iran has already been caught hiding nuclear facilities. So at most, air strikes would only delay the program and make Iran more determined to eventually get a weapon. After all, the greatest deterrent to enemy attack in a dangerous neighborhood is a nuclear weapons capability.
Invading on the ground would be the only way to make sure that Iran never obtained a nuclear device. After the fiasco of invading Iraq (and the continuing bog in Afghanistan), invading the larger, more mountainous, more populous, and more zealous Iran likely would be an even bigger nightmare.
Even though U.S. policymakers seem to be oblivious, or at least ambivalent, to these stark realities, Iran’s neighbor Turkey is not. The Turks are of the opinion that a more cooperative approach from Iran’s neighbors might make Tehran stop short of making a bomb. In other words, Iran might feel secure enough to halt at developing technology that would enable it to construct a weapon on short notice—much as Japan has already done.
Whereas the Obama administration’s idea of trying to build bridges with Iran is “stop your nuclear program and we’ll give you a bunch of stuff or continue at the risk of more sanctions and war,” Turkey, cognizant that previous rounds of sanctions have failed to dissuade Iran’s nuclear program and tired of incurring the costs for U.S. aggressive behavior in its region, is attempting to make Iran feel secure enough that the Iranians will stop short of getting a nuclear weapon. The Turks believe that treating Iran with respect will make them have something to lose by getting a nuke. The United States should end its economic and military saber-rattling and adopt Turkey’s much less belligerent posture.
In the end, with Israel’s 200–400 nuclear weapons and Sunni Arab states’ hostility to Shi’ite Iran, the Turkish, and any American, attempt to make Iran feel more secure may fail. But it’s worth a try, because it’s the only good option left.
If all else fails, the good news is that Iran is no erratic North Korea and can be more easily deterred from using or selling any nuclear weapons that it might obtain by America’s globally dominant nuclear arsenal of thousands of weapons.
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