Sanctions to soften Iran?


With the Iranian nuclear enrichment programme worrying the West, Alex Court argues that an effective anti-nuclear international coalition must be more united

The West is not friendly with the Islamic Republic of Iran. With strong Islamic laws, an Ayatollah (supreme leader) and censored press, the Persian middle-eastern country has been ostracised. Following the revolution of 1979 which opposed the ruling Shah, the recently botched Presidential “elections” and everything in between – including the eight year Iran-Iraq war, Iran hasn’t endeared itself to the West. On top of this, the everpresent nuclear threat raised its ugly head once again towards the end of last month.


iranian missileSparked by the recent disclosure of a secret nuclear enrichment plant, stress and conflict over Iran’s nuclear programme soared globally. Exactly why Tehran decided to inform the UN of their scheme remains unclear. Did they send the letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) because they felt they should, or did Tehran learn that western intelligence agencies already knew? President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad predictably played down the significance of this plant, located near the city of Qom, and said it is intended for energy generation rather than the production of offensive materials. Why, then, keep it secret?

The head of IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, went so far as to say that Iran had been “on the wrong side of the law” in hiding the uranium plant, adding that Iran was supposed to “inform us on the day it was decided to construct the facility”.

With the world already worried, Iran then launched missile tests a week later – trialling the medium-range ‘Shahab-3’ and ‘Sejil-2’ weapons. Both have firing ranges of about 2,000km, meaning decisions in topsy-turvy Tehran can cause explosions, death and reaction in Eastern Europe, US bases in the Persian Gulf, and in Tel Aviv.

Thankfully, world leaders quickly condemned the tests. A White House spokesman called the actions “provocative”, while France echoed this attitude. British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, labelled the tests “reprehensible”, encapsulating the all-round feeling of distrust directed towards Tehran.

All this doom, gloom and concern culminated in a long-awaited meeting in Geneva early this month, featuring the ‘Big Six’ nations – the US, UK, France, China, Russia and Germany – who were glad that Iran RSVPed affirmatively. With the goal of dissuading Iran from their uranium enrichment program, the historic talks were the first time that diplomats from Iran and America had met in thirty years.

While the Iranian representatives were always going to fight their corner, assuring that their nuclear program is meant solely to generate electricity, President Obama has said that the size of the new plant is “not consistent” with an energy-creating goal. Additionally, there is the unanswered question of why the plant was kept secret, given the illegality of hiding the construction of a nuclear plant to the IAEA. With these problems, it doesn’t seem Iran is co-operative, even if it is strictly-speaking, “within their rights.”

So how does a body of world powers achieve their goal of dissuasion? Sanctions are notoriously difficult to decide on, particularly in a case where the stakes are especially high. The UK, US and France have very different concerns to Russia and China – most visibly oil – China gets 15 per cent of its annual supply from Iran. Furthermore, the ideological relationship shared by Russia and China raises issues. Add to this the internal politics of the Kremlin, Russia’s large influential arms lobby groups which trade regularly with Iran, and a growing Muslim population: how could the forces tackling Iran be united, with such mixed agendas?

Suggested sanctions seek to target oil and gas businesses, and banks will feel the squeeze. There are not many options left – any potential sanctions will be the fourth round of embargoes; the current batch of sanctions were initiated back in 2006. There are currently embargoes on sensitive nuclear material, and the individuals involved with Iran’s nuclear program have had their financial assets frozen. Iranian arms exports are widely banned, and the trading of Iranian banks is scrutinised internationally.

It remains paramount that if the sanctions belt is tightened, enforcers must ensure that the leadership feels the effects. In democracy-deficient Iran, ordinary people should not have to bear the negative effects caused by the decisions of arrogant leaders.

Positive incentives would present Iran with something more appealing than the pursual of an enrichment programme. Could this be a non-aggression agreement with America, assistance with developing a civilian nuclear programme, or perhaps helping Iran to get a foot in the door of the World Trade Organisation? Options do exist.

Calls for a diplomatic solution at this stage seem optimistic, if not unrealistic. In light of this, the ‘Big Six’ must present themselves, at the follow-up meeting later this month, as a united whole, bigger and more threatening than the sum of its parts. The idea of an Iran with weapons of mass destruction is a frightening thought; let’s hope we don’t live to see the day.