A meeting of the P 5+1 and Iran is scheduled for Feb. 26. It is not clear what if anything will change since the meetings last year in which Iran rejected the West’s demands for nuclear enrichment to cease at 20 percent, all the enriched uranium to be sent out of the country and dismantling of the Fordo facility.
Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who has worked closely on sanctions legislation tells me, “Iran currently could reach critical capability by July 2014 when Tehran can produce enough weapons-grade uranium — or sufficient separated plutonium from the Arak heavy-water reactor — for a bomb before such production could reasonably be expected to be detected by the … [International Atomic Energy Agency] or Western intelligence services. This is when Iran could reach undetectable breakout and when could be too late to respond with force. This undetectable breakout could occur even earlier if Iran has a secret enrichment facility or if it can get a sufficient number of advanced centrifuges installed and operational.” The best-case scenario, he explains, is also highly unlikely:
“The best-case scenario is that Iran agrees to satisfy all its international obligations. It is, however, extremely unlikely that Iran’s supreme leader will be willing to do so, now or ever, unless he fears for the survival of his regime. In light of the regime’s long track record of deceptive conduct, any deal is destined for failure if it does not include the highest degree of verification and transparency.”
Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, announced just yesterday the implementation of another round of sanctions. The Iran Threat Reduction and Syrian Human Rights Act of 2012 (H.R. 1905) “prohibits any country that currently imports Iranian oil (under an exemption in current law) from doing so unless it settles its trade balance with Iran through the export of trade goods and not hard currency.” In a statement Royce urged the administration to “to robustly implement and enforce this provision of law.”
And that is critical, Iran experts say. There is, for example much to be done in enforcing the oil export sanctions and in making certain that Iran does not evade European Union sanctions by using, for example, Chinese and Russian banks. As for the military option, it is important that President Obama stop sending mixed messages. On one hand, we have passed sanctions, but he is also putting notoriously weak-on-Iran Chuck Hagel in at the Pentagon, overseeing a sequester, refusing to do anything effective in Syria and winding down precipitously in Afghanistan. Strong statements in the State of the Union address and during his trip to Israel would help shift emphasis toward a more credible military threat.
As of now, sanctions are having a big impact on currency and certain sectors of the economy. But is the Iranian Revolutionary Guard not getting paid? Are Iranian elites not able to pay their bills? No. And without that extreme pressure (which we may not be capable of applying) it is unlikely the mullahs will give up their nuclear ambitions. The only time they put their nuclear weapons program in deep freeze was when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. Only then did they fear that the United States might take them out, too. It is telling that 10 years later we’ve exited entirely from Iraq and the Iranian nuclear program is speeding ahead. That may not be coincidental. Messages matter, whether we intend Tehran to be the audience or not.