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The real vs. the surreal options on Iran

File: Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (R) shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Geneva, Jan. 14, 2015. (Rick Wilkingrick/AFP/Getty Images)

This post is part of the “Iran and the Nuclear Deal” symposium.

The negotiated framework on Iran’s nuclear programs, announced in Lausanne, Switzerland on April 2, promises to place substantial, verifiable limits on Iran’s nuclear capabilities, even if it won’t completely eliminate all of Iran’s nuclear activities. Critics of the framework have proposed two alternative options: the imposition of enhanced sanctions that, they say, would lead to “a better deal,” or direct military action. Advocates of these options are engaged in wishful thinking. Neither option is likely to lead to a better outcome from the standpoint of U.S., regional and international security.

Enhanced economic sanctions are the current alternative proposal getting the most attention. There are three major problems with such proposals, however. First, in most cases, economic sanctions are effective only when they are multilateral, involving all of the target country’s main economic partners. The current sanctions against Iran have been effective precisely because the P5+1 – Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States plus Germany – have all supported the sanctions effort. At this point, however, there is no enthusiasm in Europe, Russia or China for enhanced sanctions against Iran.

[President Obama’s full remarks announcing a ‘framework’ for a nuclear deal with Iran]

Sanctions involve economic costs to sanction-imposing countries, not just the target, and it is unlikely that Europe, Russia or China, will want to make further economic sacrifices. The European Union’s economy is expected grow by barely 1 percent in 2015, and Russia’s economy will shrink by 3 or more percent. Meanwhile, China’s growth rate will be its lowest in 25 years. Within days of the Lausanne announcement, Russia announced that it would proceed with the sale of air defense systems to Iran. Likewise, Chinese and Iranian officials met to discuss expanded economic ties within days of the announcement. Without multilateral support, the enhanced sanctions option is a mirage.

Second, even if enhanced sanctions were implemented, it is unlikely that Tehran would make substantial concessions. The sanctions play a complex role in Iran’s domestic political economy that intersects with its intense factional politics. Iran’s leadership is clearly determined to have some enrichment capability and to keep its current nuclear facilities open at least at a nominal level. Iran’s leaders have wrapped these issues in a nationalist narrative that they are unlikely to abandon for both ideological and political reasons: They believe the narrative, and they want to stay in power.

Third, economic sanctions frequently become counter-productive over time. As cases in Iraq, Serbia and other contexts have demonstrated, international sanctions often lead to a “rally around the flag” reaction. Nationalists and patriots do not like to see their countries treated harshly, even if they do not support the people who are running their countries. Hard-liners double-down because they don’t want to show weakness. Plus, a nationalistic narrative makes it easier for hard-liners to crack down on their more moderate domestic political opponents. The result is that policy concessions become less likely.

All of this suggests that the enhanced sanctions option is far less plausible than it appears on the surface. Nor should anyone have any illusions about the costs, consequences and likely outcomes of a military option. This likely would be a major aerial assault, involving many sorties over many targets and producing many civilian casualties. The repercussions in the Middle East would be complex and dire. The transatlantic relationship would be rocked at a time when transatlantic solidarity is needed to counter Russia’s aggression in eastern Ukraine.

As for Iran itself, air strikes would probably destroy its nuclear facilities and set back its nuclear program for several years, but then what? The most likely scenario is that Iran’s nuclear program would become a fervent nationalist cause – widely embraced by hard-liners and moderates alike. Driven by patriotic pride and a desire to acquire a nuclear deterrent, Iran’s leadership would go all-out to acquire a nuclear weapon capability as soon as possible. Tehran would throw out all of the international inspectors, and it would throw off the current constraints on its nuclear activities. The international sanctions regime would crumble.

Iran would not have to start from scratch. It has already learned the nuclear fundamentals: It knows how to produce plutonium, enrich uranium and stockpile fissile material. This knowledge cannot be destroyed. The initial attack would give Tehran an added incentive to hide and disperse its new nuclear facilities in anticipation of future strikes. Iran is a large, mountainous country – larger than Britain, France and Germany combined – that provides an abundance of sites for secret and well-protected nuclear facilities. Iran could succeed in building and hiding a nuclear weapon program. Instead of eliminating Iran’s nuclear activities, then, an aerial assault could lead to an Iranian nuclear weapon capability in less than 10 years.

Neither enhanced sanctions nor military action therefore holds out great prospects for effectively dealing with Iran’s nuclear challenge. The Lausanne framework isn’t ideal, but it is the only path to negotiated constraints on Iran’s nuclear program, and it is the best option for preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Michael E. Brown is the dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University. Chantal de Jonge Oudraat is president of Women In International Security (WIIS).