By Dr Magnus Norell - Infosphere AB
Exactly 31 one years ago – on January 16, 1979 – the Shah of Iran left the Peacock throne and went into exile, and eventual death in Cairo. This was the culmination of several months of upheaval, strikes, demonstrations and violence and it opened the way for the birth of the Islamic republic that, like so many other revolutionary movements, soon started to feed on itself. 31 one years later, the world is faced with a regime that is simultaneously oppressing its own people and pursuing an almost apocalyptic world-view including an alleged drive for nuclear weapons.
The debate on how to confront this threat is still raging between several academics, governments and policy-makers around the globe. It is no secret that the failings to find a common (at least in the Security Council) stand on Iran has greatly accommodated the Iranian regimes strivings to deflect criticism and avoid serious sanctions to force a change in what is still self-described by the Iranian government as a revolutionary country. There seems to be one major dividing line in these debates. One school of thought argues that the best way of handling the regime in Tehran is to talk and engage with it, thus easing the mind of a regime that is constantly talking about external threats. Of course, the Obama administration is the best example of such a policy, a policy much divergent from its predecessor in the Bush-era. The other school of thought is more inclined to pressure Iran, arguing that any serious talks will only be used by the Iranian regime to play for time and use that time to pursue its nuclear option until they have the bomb, or at least the capability to make one.
Developments for the past few years (even before the election of Obama as new US President) seem to bear the second option out; a more cautious Iranian approach after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 (with feelers sent out to the US) soon changed when it became clear to the Iranians that they where not next in line. Instead, the drive towards nuclear independency (including the ability to build the bomb and get enough high-enriched uranium to do so) has picked up speed. The prospects for a deal with Iran got a blow when the Iranian regime decided against an agreement its own negotiators had reached with the international community late 2009.
So the issue remains; how to deal with the perceived Iranian threat? Engagement has clearly not run its course yet but it looks increasingly difficult to reach an agreement that would seriously limit Iranian capabilities to reach a stage where they can develop or build nuclear weapons. The international consensus on a clear policy towards that end is simply not present. The current inaction or inability to seriously confront the Iranians is clearly visible in both the US and in Europe (where France, the UK and Germany constitute the leading actors).
Short of military action – that no-one really wants – is either to come to terms with an Iranian bomb (or capacity to build one), with all the implications of a regional arms-race that that scenario will entail. Or to come up with a series of efficient sanctions that could ultimately force the Iranian regime to change and, in the longer term, maybe lead to a regime-change as well. Such sanctions must focus on the one area where the regime is really very vulnerable: fuel. A sanctions-regime that targeted Iran’s dependency on refined petroleum products from abroad (Iran currently gets 40% of its refined products from abroad due to its lack of domestic capacity to refine) could presumably make sanctions felt. One piece of evidence for that are the strikes and disturbances at the Iranian oil-fields that signaled the fall of the Shah in 1979. Oil, then as today, remains a weak spot for the regime in Tehran and is currently the best avenue to seriously affect the Iranian regime. To be really efficient, however, it needs to be an international effort and that is nowhere to be seen at the moment. Momentum is building for the next-best scenario. The US Congress, moved to act in no small part by the violence occurring since the fraudulent Iranian elections in June last year, recently enacted legislation allowing the US administration to punish foreign companies that do business with the regime in Iran (the bill was passed 412 – 12 in the Hose in December and the Senate is scheduled to act on it later in January).
The change in US policy away from engagement – engagement that, so far at least, have found no takers in Tehran – stems also from a realization that even a regime dominated by the opposition (however un-likely that is right now) would still be rather hostile to the US and her allies in the region. If these US moves will be enough to get some US allies on-board the sanctions-train remains to be seen.