“Talks are going slowly but Iran’s centrifuges are moving quickly,” said one US Congressman recently of the frustrating summer of high-stakes talks on Iran’s nuclear program. While meetings in Istanbul and Baghdad in April and May left P5+1 negotiators (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany) with some hope that progress could be made toward limiting any military aspects of Tehran’s nuclear program, a third round of talks in Moscow in June proved so disappointing that no further high-level meetings were immediately scheduled.
As talks have proved fruitless, the pressure on all sides to bring this conflict to some sort of conclusion has continued to mount. A new round of crippling US and EU sanctions hit Iran in July, further squeezing the Iranian economy and prompting Tehran to renew its threats to block the Strait of Hormuz, and test new anti-ship missiles in anticipation of a conflict in the Persian Gulf. The United States has countered by sending more warships into the Gulf region, including a second aircraft carrier, the USS John C. Stennis. In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned this week that “time to resolve this issue peacefully is running out,” again raising the possibility of a unilateral Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear sites. The Iranian nuclear crisis, after a few quiet months, appears back in full swing.
However, as this game of nuclear poker threatens to enter a dangerous new phase, policy makers in Washington and Brussels should keep several things in mind. First, the sanctions in this latest round are “the toughest Iran has ever faced,” according to US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. They represent a hard-worked, unprecedented collaboration by the United States and European Union to cripple Iran’s oil exports, which comprise roughly 80 percent of the country’s foreign reserves. New US sanctions can punish any state that buys Tehran’s crude, and the EU has agreed to and implemented a complete embargo of Iranian oil imports. These sanctions have been added on top of already mounting measures that are punishing the Islamic Republic with a 50 percent decrease in oil exports, over 25 percent annual inflation, and the loss over the past year of half of the value of the Iranian currency, the rial.
In response, Iran has begun stockpiling imported goods, hard currency, and food to help soften the blow to the economy. Still, there have been reports of unprecedented anti-government protests in parts of the country as food prices (chicken in particular) have skyrocketed. Significantly, by many accounts, more Iranians are beginning to blame their government for their hardships than in the past, as public discontent continues to grow.
The Iranian regime is also finding itself increasingly isolated, unpopular, and impotent internationally. The inevitable fall of the Assad regime in Syria will be a major blow to the Islamic Republic, robbing it of its closest ally and conduit to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Arab Spring movements that have swept the region embody the very kind of political change Iran’s leaders are desperate to avoid, and the drawdown of coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan robs Tehran of the ability to easily initiate violence against Western troops. Even Iran’s threats to disrupt the global economy by closing the Strait of Hormuz will increasingly ring hollow, as its Sunni neighbors bring into service new pipelines, such as the Abu Dhabi Crude Oil Pipeline and the Iraq Pipeline through Saudi Arabia, which could reduce oil traffic in the Strait by as much as 25 percent.
The clock may indeed be ticking as the Islamic Republic steadily enriches toward weapons-grade capacity. Yet US officials still believe that any serious move by the Iranians to produce a nuclear weapon would be detected, leaving the world six months to a year to determine a plan of action. In the meantime, therefore, efforts should be redoubled to force concessions from the Iranian regime at the negotiating table, and reports this week that a fresh round of high-level talks may take place at the end of August should be welcomed. At the same time, serious talk of war or preemptive action against Tehran – as well as the politicization of this issue in the lead-up to the US presidential election – must be carefully watched. Any strike now would carry the double risk of rallying renewed support for the regime while dividing the West.
As the screws of international sanctions tighten, extreme pressures, both from within and without, are beginning to weaken the foundations upon which Iran’s leaders stand. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, if he is indeed seeking to produce nuclear weapons, is likely doing so because he thinks they will help cement his government’s presence in a dangerous and unpredictable world. Now is the time to push the regime to see that it is in fact the perilous nuclear path that could most quickly bring about its downfall. After all, with a plummeting economy, growing international isolation, and burgeoning popular unrest at home, the clock must surely be ticking for Khamenei as well.