February 14, 2011 | WebMemo on Iran
Iran’s hostile regime has been one of the chief beneficiaries of the political turmoil that has convulsed Egypt and Tunisia, which distracted the United States and other countries from the ongoing standoff over Iran’s nuclear program. The dramatic events diverted international attention from Tehran’s stubborn refusal to negotiate an acceptable resolution of the nuclear issue at the failed Istanbul talks last month. There is a distinct danger that Tehran will conclude that growing regional instability is tilting the balance of power in its favor and give it greater latitude to withstand international pressure to rein in its nuclear weapons program.
The Obama Administration should vigilantly refocus international attention on Iran’s nuclear defiance, support for terrorism, and human rights abuses and ratchet up pressure on Iran’s radical regime.
Failed Nuclear Talks in Istanbul
Tehran demonstrated that it is not serious about a diplomatic resolution of the nuclear issue by rejecting negotiations with the U.S., four other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, and Germany at the January 21–22 talks in Istanbul. Tehran refused to discuss “Iran’s nuclear rights,” including its expanding uranium enrichment program, despite four rounds of Security Council sanctions requiring Iran to comply with its nuclear safeguard obligations. Iran spurned Western efforts to revive a 2009 proposal for a nuclear fuel swap that would have traded some of Iran’s growing stockpile of low-enriched uranium for fuel for its Tehran research reactor ostensibly needed to produce medical isotopes. Tehran also demanded that sanctions be lifted as a precondition for any future talks.
Rather than ease sanctions in a myopic effort to salvage vapid talks, the Obama Administration should redouble efforts to escalate international sanctions on Iran’s recalcitrant regime. Although Iran’s uranium enrichment program has suffered technical delays, including some caused by the mysterious Stuxnet computer virus, Washington must not grow complacent about the amount of time remaining to dissuade Tehran from continuing its nuclear efforts.
Iran is estimated to already possess enough low-enriched uranium to arm at least two nuclear weapons if it is further enriched. Despite a drop in the number of centrifuges operating at Iran’s uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, the Federation of American Scientists released a study on January 21 that warned that Iran’s enrichment capacity has steadily increased and become more efficient.
Washington should relentlessly ratchet up sanctions on Tehran also because rising oil prices have cushioned some of the impact of previous sanctions on Iran, which exports about 2.2 million barrels of crude per day. Iran earned about $64 billion from oil exports from January to November 2010, which was approximately $11 billion more than it earned over the entire year of 2009. Iran’s regime, which has gorged itself on state-controlled oil revenues, is heavily dependent on oil profits to finance its military buildup and expensive nuclear program and minimize its need for popular support.
Sanctions can be helpful to the extent that they drive up the economic, diplomatic, and political costs that the regime must pay to continue on its present nuclear path. Although the regime is unlikely to halt its nuclear weapons program unless it is convinced that the consequences of continuing will threaten its hold on power, sanctions can also help fuel popular dissatisfaction with the regime that could eventually lead to a change of regime. Such a change would be the best possible outcome not only for American counter-proliferation, counter-terrorism, and human rights goals but also for the Iranian people.
What the Administration Should Do
To keep the pressure on Tehran, the Obama Administration should:
Two Revolutions on February 11
Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak was forced out of power on the same day that Iran commemorates its 1979 revolution. But the two revolutions have important differences despite the cynical claims by Iran’s tyrannical regime that Egyptians were inspired by Iran’s Islamist revolution. In fact, Iran’s opposition Green Movement has much more in common with Egypt’s young protesters than the thuggish leaders of the regime, who have clamped down even harder on the leaders of the Green Movement to prevent them from demonstrating today in support of Egyptians, as they had planned.
Although the Obama Administration missed the opportunity to clearly state its support for Iran’s opposition after it was galvanized by the stolen election of June 2009, it should now give at least as much rhetorical support to Iran’s struggle for freedom as it did to Egypt’s. Tehran’s systematic repression of the political freedom and human rights of Iranian citizens deserves condemnation backed by international sanctions as much as Iran’s nuclear defiance and support for terrorism.
James Phillips is Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.