Almost everyone thinks that an Iran without nuclear weapons is preferable to an Iran with them. Even Iran agrees. It has remained a member of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), accepts inspections of its principal nuclear sites by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and its leaders proclaim that the possession, manufacture or use of nuclear weapons is contrary to Islam.
Since the days of the shah, Iran has been a proponent of a nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East. The US director of national intelligence, who coordinates all the US security agencies, admits Iran has not taken a decision to build a bomb, which would be detected rather quickly. But Iran’s nuclear history has lapses and inconsistencies that do not inspire confidence. And the incendiary rhetoric of Iran’s revolutionary Islamic leaders adds to the suspicion.
A popular line of thought insists that only coercion can succeed in persuading Iran to change course. This policy began in earnest in the mid-1990s under the Clinton administration, and has since been pursued with vigour by George W Bush and Barack Obama. Originally European states were reluctant to join in, but in recent years France and the UK have led the way in advocating a stern sanctions policy.
When sanctions began Iran had only a rudimentary nuclear programme, without a single centrifuge. Today, after 16 years of ever-stronger sanctions, the IAEA reports that Iran has a substantial nuclear programme with some 8,000 operational centrifuges installed in two major sites, and a stockpile of about five tons of low-enriched uranium. This is the definition of a failed policy.
The US and its allies have responded by increasing the sanctions to a point where Iran would no longer be able to sell its petroleum products, depriving it of more than 50% of its revenues. This amounts to a military blockade of Iranian oil ports, an act of war. So sanctions, supposed to be the alternative to war, are gradually morphing into economic warfare. The point at which economic pressure becomes undeclared war will be reached by mid-2012 when near-total boycotts of Iranian banks and Iranian oil by the US and the EU will formally take effect. No one can be sure how Iran will respond, but it is difficult to believe it will meekly surrender or simply do nothing.
How can Iran respond?
Coercive strategy against Iran is based on the unspoken belief that there will be no serious damage in return. This also seems to be the belief among those who are conducting covert warfare against Iran, with the murders of Iranian scientists and cyber warfare, such as the Stuxnet worm intended to interfere with the operation of Iran’s centrifuges (1). The US is flying unmanned aircraft over Iran (at least two have been shot down and a third captured more or less intact). There are plausible allegations of support for separatist movements in Iranian Baluchistan, where Israelis pretending to be CIA officers are said to have recruited agents, in the Arab-populated province of Khuzestan, and in Iran’s Kurdish and Azeri areas.
All this is viewed with some satisfaction in Israel, the US and some European capitals. Despite assertions that Iran is a threat to international peace and stability, western policy is based on the unspoken assumption that Iran cannot retaliate effectively against financial and covert threats to its own security. None of the parties involved would tolerate such actions on its own territory. So how can Iran answer?
Iran is no great military threat, even to its closest neighbours. Its military budget is a tiny fraction of that of the US or Nato, or even the combined military expenditures of the Gulf Cooperation Council members (2). Iran is surrounded by US and Nato forces, including a necklace of bases and naval forces. Deeply aware of its relative weakness, it has so far avoided direct military confrontations.
Instead, it has invested heavily in a robust but relatively inexpensive defensive structure, which would be enormously costly to any potential invader. It has also spent years perfecting asymmetrical techniques of warfare, such as guerrilla warfare on land and swarms of fast boats at sea to confuse, and perhaps overwhelm, much larger ships. It has also developed layers of cruise missiles, relatively simple weapons but extremely effective when used en masse against a large target.
Cyber warfare is another area of Iranian expertise. Unlike large military systems, the internet is a relatively level playing field. The crackdown on protests after the disputed election in 2009 showed the government’s ability to control cyberspace. Unlike the Arab states during the mass protests of 2011, Iran was able to selectively turn off parts of the net to hamper use of Facebook, Twitter and texting without doing major damage to commerce. It succeeded in penetrating social media to identify potential opposition leaders and then used their own words and actions to prosecute them. The country also has a surplus of young, sophisticated IT engineers enlisted by the regime into a semi-covert cyber army. To date, it has been used for domestic repression, but it could just as easily be turned into a weapon against external enemies.
Weapon of mass destruction
Iran’s weapon of mass destruction is not speedboats or cyber warfare, let alone non-existent nuclear weapons: it is the price of oil. And to use it, Tehran doesn’t even need to close the Strait of Hormuz. If all the international sanctions are applied, about 2m barrels of Iranian oil a day would disappear from the market by mid-2012. Saudi Arabia has indicated that it would increase production, and Libyan production is coming back on line, which would help. The US and others (mainly European) could also open their strategic reserves to make up some of the shortfall.
However, Europe would have to replace some 600,000 barrels of oil that it imports daily from Iran, and much of that demand is centred on the three most vulnerable economies: Greece, Italy and Spain. Their Iranian imports are presently based on barter arrangements and relatively inexpensive long-term contracts, which will be difficult to replace at the same price or quality. New contracts must be negotiated, alternative suppliers brought on line and refineries recalibrated.
Will this transformation work seamlessly, without a significant net increase in the price of oil? In January, as Iran and the US exchanged threats over the Strait of Hormuz, the price of oil increased by more than 6% and then stabilised near this higher level, without a shot being fired or any new sanctions implemented. All increases, as everyone knows, affect not just the (politically sensitive) price of petrol but virtually everything that is manufactured and transported.
Imagine the following scenario just four months from now: as the world scrambles to replace Iranian oil, and as Iran finds it increasingly hard to sustain its national revenues, the oil market is trending higher. Just at that moment, there are unexplained explosions at pipelines and oil loading points in the south of Iraq, removing another million barrels per day from the market. At the same time, there are mysterious breakdowns in Saudi and Kuwaiti refineries, and oil loading operations in the United Arab Emirates are impaired, due to unforeseen technical difficulties, perhaps related to computer controls, or to sabotage by Iran. It is impossible to predict how high the price of oil would go and how long it would stay there.
This speculation is to show that “crippling” sanctions don’t just affect Iran: they could have severe consequences for the rest of the world. Such a risk might be worth running if the policy objective is well defined and attainable. But if it is to get Iran to capitulate and eliminate its entire nuclear enrichment programme, anyone with the slightest knowledge of the country can tell you that is a chimera — regardless of who rules in Tehran.
If the objective is to get the Islamic Republic back to the negotiating table, Iran has been signalling for more than a year that it is willing to undertake negotiationswithout preconditions, that is without having to agree to a complete termination of its nuclear enrichment programme as the UN Security Council resolutions demand — even the NPT allows such enrichment. Yet that wording was built into the latest letter by EU foreign policy and security chief Catherine Ashton on 21 October 2011 proposing a resumption of talks (3). That has been the fundamental flaw in the West’s strategy, and it is why we find ourselves at the present dangerous moment.
If, however, the purpose of this round of sanctions is to punish Iran in the hope of provoking a war, then that may be the outcome. But it will not resolve the Iranian nuclear threat. On the contrary, it is likely to strengthen an extremist government in its suspicion and rejection of the international community, increase its determination to continue to build a complete nuclear fuel cycle, and possibly extend that to a weapon.