Last Friday I was interviewed on the PBS NewsHour about alternatives to using military force in Syria:
Archive for the ‘Sanctions and Security’ Category
If the Assad regime has used chemical weapons and crossed the red line President Obama warned against, urgent international action is needed. This does not mean the United States should take military action. Instead Washington should work through the United Nations to confirm the evidence and if necessary mobilize diplomatic action against those responsible.
The first task is to get UN inspectors into Syria to verify if chemical weapons have been used, and by whom. The UN Secretary General has assembled a team of experts, but the Assad regime so far has refused the demand for unrestricted access and has denied them entry. The U.S. should support efforts to negotiate terms of reference for the inspection team so that it can enter the country and begin collecting evidence.
It is important to acknowledge that the information available so far is very uneven and limited. No soil samples are available from a physical site. Most of the evidence reportedly comes from tissue and blood samples that have been transmitted by multiple handlers. The ‘chain of custody’ of the detected elements and the identities of those responsible remain unclear.
It is not clear who may have used chemical weapons. Initially the Assad regime claimed that the rebels were responsible for the injuries and deaths that were reported last month. The rebels claim the government is responsible. The amounts of sarin and other toxic agents reportedly used were quite small. Some analysts have suggested that the use of chemical weapons shells may have been inadvertent. These and other questions need to be clarified before any action can be taken.
If the evidence shows that the Syrian government has indeed used these weapons, the Obama administration should work with key allies and members of Security Council to apply pressure on the Assad regime. The goal should be to take diplomatic steps that could lead to the adoption of targeted Security Council sanctions directed at those responsible for the command and control of chemical weapons systems. Hopefully Russia and China could be persuaded to support such measures. This would be a major diplomatic setback for Assad and would isolate and weaken his regime. None of this will be possible without firm evidence of actual chemical weapons use by government forces.
No justification exists for even considering military action. Crossing that dangerous red line would have severe negative consequences. It could involve U.S. forces in another Middle East conflict and perhaps drag us into the deadly Syrian civil war, worsening an already grave security crisis in the region. Bombing strikes would not be sufficient to neutralize Syria’s vast arsenal of chemical weapons, and they could cause explosions that would release the very deadly toxins we seek to contain. The use of force would squander any opportunity to win Russian and Chinese support for UN action and would hand the Assad regime a lifeline of continued diplomatic support.
Multilateral action through the UN offers the best path for determining if the regime has used chemical weapons and if so for mobilizing international pressure against those responsible.
This has been a week of war-mongering against Iran, all of it carefully orchestrated to coincide with the annual Washington convention of AIPAC, the American Israeli Political Action Committee.
In his speech to AIPAC U.S. Vice President Joe Biden pointedly said “all options, including military force, are on the table.” The United States is not bluffing and the window for diplomacy is closing, he warned. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu used identical language about the window for diplomacy closing in his video comments to the conference. He reiterated the spurious claim from his UN speech in the fall that Iran will soon cross a ‘red line’ of uranium enrichment capability.
Not to be outdone, hawks in the U.S. Senate introduced a new resolution, S. Res. 65, declaring “if the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in self-defense, the United States Government should stand with Israel and provide diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence.” The resolution was introduced by Senators Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ). AIPAC lobbyists are urging support for the measure in their visits to Capitol Hill this week.
The resolution implies that the government of Israel will have de facto authority over U.S. policy. It could set the stage for the United States being dragged into a future Israeli attack on Iran, with disastrous consequences for U.S. security and the region. Peace Action and other antiwar groups have called the resolution a backdoor to war with Iran.
Even if that dreaded scenario never occurs, the very act of proposing such a resolution—and the veiled threats from Biden and Netanyahu—are provocative and counterproductive. Issuing threats will never convince Iran to cooperate. The government of Tehran will not yield to sanctions and coercive pressure.
We should have learned that by now. Decades of U.S. sanctions and military deployments against Iran have not had the slightest effect in moderating the regime’s policies. Nor have these pressures slowed the country’s steady progress toward acquiring nuclear capability. Sanctions and military threats have made Iran less cooperative.
Instead of issuing new threats and imposing more sanctions, the United States should offer to refrain from military action, withdraw some of our forces from the region, and suspend economic sanctions, in exchange for Iran guaranteeing the peaceful character of its nuclear program and permitting more rigorous international monitoring.
The chances of such a position being adopted now in the poisoned political atmosphere of Washington are nil, but it is important nonetheless to raise our voices against the current war-mongering. You can register your opposition to the Senate resolution by sending a message through the Peace Action West website here.
The fatwa from the Ayatollah last week blew away any near-term chance of a diplomatic opening with Iran. Vice President Biden’s earlier affirmation of a willingness to talk and Foreign Minister Salehi’s positive reply the next day briefly raised hopes, but the Leader’s dismissal abruptly ended any optimism.
The underlying need for a negotiated solution remains, however, and will grow more urgent if as expected talk of possible military action resurfaces in coming months. The core of a successful U.S. bargaining position and the outline of an eventual agreement with Iran have been identified by independent experts for many years. The political will for pursuing such a settlement does not exist right now in Washington, but it is important nonetheless to state the truth, even if decision makers refuse to listen.
Imposing more pressure on Iran will not work. This approach has been tried repeatedly for years but has not halted the advance of Iran’s nuclear program. Sanctions have caused serious harm to the Iranian economy but have not changed the regime’s political character. On the contrary, the octogenarian rulers in Iran seem to have grown even more reactionary and unyielding.
To break through the Leader’s reluctance will take a significant initiative from the United States. We know what we want from Tehran: binding limits on its nuclear program, assurances that it is not building a bomb, and more rigorous international monitoring. What are we prepared to offer in return?
If Tehran permits more intrusive inspections and guarantees the peaceful character of its nuclear program, the United States should accept Iranian enrichment and begin to lift sanctions. With each step toward greater Iranian transparency we should further ease sanctions, aiming toward the normalization of economic and political relations.
Reaching these goals will require a long journey, given the historical animosity between Washington and Tehran and the divisiveness of these issues. A negotiated solution is indispensable, though, and is the only way to prevent proliferation and avoid war.
In the 1990s, because of the horrific humanitarian costs of the draconian embargo against Iraq, the United States and other countries adopted a policy of targeted sanctions. No longer would nations impose general sanctions that harm innocent populations. The focus instead would be on pressuring specific individuals and entities responsible for wrongdoing through arms embargoes and selective measures such as travel bans and asset freezes.
Today in Iran the United States and the European Union have abandoned the idea of smart sanctions. U.S. and EU sanctions have hammered Iran’s banking industry and oil trading sector and are starting to devastate the economy. The goal is to make sanctions ‘bite’ so that the Tehran government will yield to Western demands, but so far Iranian officials remain defiant.
Meanwhile the costs for the people of Iran are mounting. Oil exports have dropped in half, national income is plummeting, inflation has gone through the roof, and economic hardships are mounting. Vulnerable medical patients cannot get the medicines they need. Recent reports in The Washington Post and The New York Times indicate that chemotherapy drugs are hard to obtain and in short supply. Food and medicines are exempt from sanctions, but if they they cannot be financed, the exemption is meaningless. In response to the troubling news stories the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control recently loosened regulations for exporting medicines to Iran, but the larger problem of how to finance such purchases remains.
Policy makers seem to have forgotten the reasons for shifting to targeted sanctions. The purpose is not only to avoid unintended humanitarian consequences but to minimize the risk of a rally-round-the-flag effect. When sanctions harm the innocent they lose legitimacy and political support. Governments under blanket sanctions can blame their country’s economic and social miseries on external enemies, diverting attention from their own mismanagement. They can isolate domestic opponents by accusing them of helping foreign enemies. All of these trends are evident now in Iran. Sanctions have made life more difficult for reformers and human rights advocates—which is why many opponents of the regime, including Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, are critical of them.
It is important to distinguish between UN sanctions and the broader measures imposed by the United States and the European Union. The sanctions adopted by the UN Security Council are more selective and targeted. They freeze the assets and ban the travel of approximately 100 Iranian officials and entities responsible for the country’s nuclear program. They do not hurt ordinary people. These sanctions have the unanimous support of the Security Council, including China and Russia. They signal strong international opposition to an Iranian bomb program. They provide bargaining leverage that can be used to reach a negotiated agreement to end the nuclear standoff.
Sanctions that target potential bomb makers are smart. Those that harm innocent civilians are counterproductive and should be abandoned.
Iraq is back in the news. American officials are distressed that the Baghdad government is not being cooperative in serving U.S. interests in the region. They also worry about spillover effects from the war in Syria. Some of the rebels battling the Syrian government are taking refuge and recruiting supporters in Iraq’s Anbar province, giving new life to the Al Qaida-related militancy in the area that first arose in response to the U.S. occupation.
The Iraqi government is allowing Iran to supply weapons to Bashar al-Assad’s government in Damascus. This is a violation of UN sanctions that require states to cooperate in preventing Iranian arms exports. Planes and trucks with Iranian weapons are reportedly traversing Iraq on a daily basis.
The main beneficiary of the U.S. war in Iraq has been Iran. Tehran now has a strong ally next door rather than the feared enemy it once had in Saddam Hussein. Iraq is helping Iran prop up the Assad dictatorship in Syria. The Baghdad regime is receiving billions of dollars of American-made weapons free of charge, but it is not willing to provide the quid pro quo of supporting U.S. policy in the region.
All of this raises again the question of why the U.S. went to war in Iraq and what was accomplished. The Iraqi state has conducted relatively open elections, which is an improvement over the tyranny of Saddam, but it is still repressive and can hardly be considered democratic. Ethnic political divisions exacerbated by the U.S.-led invasion are preventing cooperation among Iraqi political factions. A low-grade Sunni insurgency continues to challenge the pro-Iranian Shia-dominated state. The Sunni vice president has been indicted for murder and has fled the country.
Was it for this that more than 4,000 Americans died and tens of thousands were maimed? That tens of thousands of Iraqis were killed? Is this why we drained hundreds of billions of dollars from the U.S. Treasury? Let those who would seek to justify the war try to answer these questions.
Once again an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report of Iranian progress in developing its nuclear industry has set off alarm bells in Washington and Tel Aviv, sparking renewed discussion of possible Israeli military strikes. The following points should be kept in mind as the debate about Iran’s nuclear program continues:
1. There is no evidence that Iran has a nuclear weapon or that it is taking steps toward actually building a bomb. Iran continues to permit IAEA inspectors to monitor its known nuclear facilities.
2. Although the UN Security Council has demanded in multiple resolutions that Iran halt uranium enrichment, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty entitles all countries to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. The Treaty refers to this as an “inalienable right,” language that Iranian authorities constantly cite.
3. Iran is steadily developing its capacity to enrich uranium. It has now produced more than enough uranium enriched to 20 per cent purity to maintain the production of medical isotopes at its Tehran Research Reactor. Iran does not have enough more highly enriched uranium to produce a nuclear warhead. Some of its 20 per cent uranium is in a form that is extremely difficult to enrich to the higher levels (90 per cent purity) that would be needed for a bomb.
4. Iran has added another 1,000 centrifuges at its underground enrichment facility near the holy city of Qom. These are older, less reliable centrifuge models, and only about a third of the installed centrifuges are operating. This may be an indication that international sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program are having some impact.
5. Military strikes are not a solution to the Iranian nuclear dilemma. Israel does not have the military capacity to destroy Iran’s widely dispersed, well defended, and increasingly hardened and deeply buried nuclear facilities. Bombing strikes would cause only a limited and temporary setback to Iran’s nuclear program.
6. Israeli military strikes would have extremely negative security implications in the region. Iran would almost certainly retaliate militarily, and its political leaders might respond to external military aggression by accelerating nuclear development and proceeding to actual weapons production.
7. Diplomacy is the only way to resolve the nuclear standoff with Iran. Sanctions are useful to diplomacy but they should be combined with incentives, including an end to military threats against Iran and an offer to remove sanctions if Iran is fully transparent and allows more rigorous international monitoring of its nuclear program.
Iran announced a nuclear ‘achievement’ on Wednesday. President Ahmadinejad was present at the Tehran Research Reactor for the loading of uranium fuel enriched to 20 per cent purity. Ahmadinejad also claimed that Iran has 3,000 new centrifuges for enriching uranium. Reactions in the United States ranged from hysterical warnings of imminent nuclear doom to suspicions that the whole event was staged for propaganda. The reactor in question is used to produce medical isotopes. Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency were on hand to observe the loading of the nuclear fuel.
The new nuclear developments in Iran have significant implications for U.S. nonproliferation policy.
They confirm what has been evident from the very beginning of the nuclear standoff: Iran will not abandon its right to enrich uranium. Western demands for Iran to halt uranium enrichment have only hardened the determination of President Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Khamenei to proceed with nuclear development. The insistence on stopping enrichment is an absolute non-starter and a formula for permanent confrontation. It is helping the regime’s rulers by giving them an easy issue around which to rally patriotic sentiment and popular support. It is no coincidence that this latest announcement of nuclear progress comes just two weeks before Iran’s parliamentary elections.
Some American and Israeli leaders believe that regime change is the only solution to the nuclear standoff and are supporting efforts to destabilize the regime in the hopes that a more democratic, Western oriented regime will arise. All of us would like to see a better, more representative government in Tehran, but fans of regime change are fooling themselves if they think a new regime will abandon the nuclear program and capitulate to Western demands. Many of the political moderates who have challenged the present regime support the nuclear program and Iran’s right to enrichment.
The latest development proves again that sanctions are not capable of preventing Iran from developing nuclear production capacity. Sanctions have imposed costs on Iran’s economy and may have slowed the nuclear program, but they have not stopped Tehran from steadily enhancing its nuclear capabilities. U.S. sanctions have been in place against Iran for more than thirty years, but they have not forced the government to yield to U.S. pressures. As I argued recently in Foreign Policy in Focus, sanctions work best in combination with incentives as part of a diplomatic bargaining process designed to achieve a negotiated settlement. The record of nonproliferation policy in other countries shows that countries give up nuclear programs not because of sanctions pressure but in response to changed political conditions, economic development opportunities and security assurances.
No negotiated agreement will be possible until the United States and its allies yield on the question of enrichment. Other countries enrich uranium, and Iran argues correctly that there is no prohibition in international law against enrichment. On the other hand, states with nuclear programs have an obligation to be more transparent, and to provide assurances of peaceful intent. Iran has not yet measured up to these standards. This is where international diplomacy should be focused, on gaining Iranian agreement to more intrusive international monitoring, not on abandoning enrichment.
The conventional wisdom in Washington is that tougher sanctions are necessary to prevent Iran from building the bomb. My view is the opposite. The imposition of punitive sanctions has failed to change Iranian policy in the past, and there is little prospect that more of the same will succeed now.
Don’t get me wrong. I agree with the aim of preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. A nuclear armed-Iran would be a grave security threat to the region and globally. A settlement of the nuclear standoff would be enormously beneficial to international security and to the cause of global disarmament.
Sanctions can help to achieve this result, but not if they are used solely for punishment. To be effective sanctions must be combined with incentives and security guarantees as part of a negotiated diplomatic agreement.
Read my recent analysis of Iran sanctions in Foreign Policy in Focus.