Coming on the heels of a new round of United Nations Security Council sanctions on Iran, the United States and Europe have added additional measures to increase pressure and change the behavior of the Iranian regime. But, are sanctions the best option? Will the international community be able to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions?

In a Q&A, George Perkovich explains that no one is under the illusion that sanctions alone will persuade Iran to stop enriching uranium, but there are other reasons to adopt sanctions and there’s no good alternative. “Military force is both unlikely and undesirable and doing nothing doesn’t seem like a desirable or tenable response,” says Perkovich. “While the United States, Europe, and others are ratcheting up pressure on the regime, outside actors need to continue to look for opportunities to cooperate with Iran and build confidence over Iran’s nuclear activities.”

Why have the United States and Europe been pushing for a stronger international response to Iran’s nuclear activities?

What is often forgotten is that Iran broke its obligations under the nonproliferation treaty—this was essentially revealed through investigations by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 2003 and 2004. There have been ongoing revelations that Iran is secretly violating its obligations by not providing the required information and operating illicitly, as most recently occurred with the revelation of the Qom facility. And Iran’s behavior suggests it is trying to acquire the capability to make nuclear weapons even though it has committed not to do this under the nonproliferation treaty.

The genesis of the pressure from the United States and European Union, and ultimately the Security Council, was the understanding that Iran needed to come back into compliance with its commitments to the IAEA. The international community wants Tehran to explain its activities and treaty violations and guarantee that the country’s nuclear activities would not lead to the production of nuclear weapons.


What was included in the fourth round of sanctions on Iran?

The sanction process is best understood as a ratcheting effect and the latest round ratcheted up pressure on Iran. The new round increases sanctions on the Revolutionary Guards and bars certain military exports to Iran.

More important than the actual sanctions however, is the fact that the Security Council even agreed to further sanctions. It demonstrates to the Iranians and the Iranian government that it is not only the United States and the West that care about the country’s nuclear activities. It’s a global—or nearly global—consensus that Iran must comply with the IAEA and stop refusing to provide information about past activities and make its program more transparent.

Iran’s failure to build international confidence has consequences—and in this case resulted in action by the Security Council. While not necessarily on Iran’s side, Tehran felt that Russia and China would ultimately block sanctions because of their other interests. So, it’s important that even the two major powers that cooperate most closely with the country basically said that Iran had gone too far, was reducing international confidence rather than strengthening it, and needed to comply with its obligations.


Why sanctions? How will sanctions influence Iran’s behavior and is engagement with Tehran still an option?

There are many reasons to pursue sanctions. Sanctions express the international community’s judgment on states that are breaking rules and acting illegitimately. With this in mind, sanctions demonstrate that the international community cares about the rules and is willing to enforce them.

Ideally, sanctions also change a country’s behavior. So the question becomes whether or not the latest round of sanctions—or any tougher sanctions in the future—will force Iran to give up its nuclear program and stop enriching uranium. Unfortunately, in this case, no one is under the illusion that the sanctions are going to stop Iran.

But there’s another reason for sanctions: to punish violators. The international community can inflict a cost for operating outside of global standards and demonstrate that it is prepared to enforce rules. Further sanctions on Iran raise the cost of enriching uranium and show that major powers are not going to look the other way and ignore Iran’s determination to push forward.

In an ideal world, sanctions would be a diplomatic step to increase pressure that could be reinforced with the future threat of military force. Ultimately, if a country doesn’t cooperate and respond to sanctions, the international community can compel them to fall into line. Diplomacy and sanctions enjoy greater leverage if the threat of force is looming on the horizon.

There is no good military option, however, for the United States, Israel, or anyone else when looking at the problem of Iran. Outside powers cannot physically destroy all of Iran’s capacity to make centrifuges and enrich uranium. For one thing, no one knows where all of the pieces of Iran’s nuclear program are positioned and many locations are burrowed deep into mountains and nearly impossible to target.

There are other reasons why a military option is beyond unattractive. It is difficult to know how Iran would respond and military action could have implications for the conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq’s political evolution. Even at the end of the George W. Bush’s presidency, it became clear that the administration realized that there was no military option.

As long as this is the case, sanctions are the toughest response available. They demonstrate resolve and show that the international community is not simply giving up.

The problem is that Iranians recognize that there is not a successful military option on the table, and this weakens the impact of sanctions. Iran feels that if it can withstand sanctions, that there is nothing that the United States and Europe can physically do. That’s the difficult situation the world is in today—diplomacy is more challenging with insufficient military options to threaten Iran.

Despite the impression that some in Washington and Israel try to create, having the political will to use force is not the issue. The question is whether using force would actually make the situation better or worse on the ground in Iran, the wider Middle East, and the global economy.


How successful was U.S. diplomacy in pushing for tougher sanctions? Why did China and Russia support the new round?

U.S. diplomacy has been pretty effective and the Obama administration deserves credit. But most of the credit goes to Iran, especially for rousing Russia to act. The Iranian government is so outlandish and difficult to deal with that it frustrates and even angers states that regularly interact with it. Russia offered to provide Iran with nuclear fuel, but received erratic and often aggressive responses—in the end, this compelled Russia to express its disapproval.

China is concerned that if the conflict over Iran’s nuclear program goes unresolved, it could lead to greater instability in the Middle East. China wants to avoid this as it could raise the cost of energy imports. Chinese companies have also struggled in dealing with the Iranian regime and found it difficult to negotiate agreements.

The United States was able to mobilize that general frustration with Iran. President Obama took a political risk when he said he was willing to negotiate with Iran, but the rest of the world saw how uninterested Tehran was in engagement and it was clear that it was Iran’s fault.


What is the significance of Turkey and Brazil voting against the sanctions? How do the sanctions relate to efforts by the two countries to negotiate an agreement to export some of Iran’s low-enriched uranium abroad?

The most important thing is not that Turkey and Brazil voted against the Security Council sanctions, but that they stepped in—with Iran’s encouragement—to try to mediate the fuel swap deal. This was similar to a deal proposed in October 2009 by the International Atomic Energy Agency, United States, and others that would have supplied Iran with fuel for a research reactor used legitimately for medical isotopes. In return, Tehran would send its low-enriched uranium out of the country for further processing.

From an international perspective, the original idea was to build confidence and get a bomb’s worth of latent nuclear material out of Iran. It appeared as though President Ahmadinejad wanted to accept the deal, possibly because he knows that the Iranian public wants a breakthrough in relations with the United States. So, if he could get credit for normalizing relations at the same time the regime was repressing protesters amid a domestic crisis after the elections, he would be empowered. Instead, the deal fell apart after Ahmadinejad was criticized by his political opponents as they accused him of betraying the country by making concessions.

Eight months later, Brazil and Turkey stepped in to revive the languishing deal. Behind the scenes, Iran was actively encouraging states in the Security Council to mediate the negotiations and saying it was prepared to be flexible—this was clearly an attempt to gain support in the Security Council and encourage countries not to vote for sanctions. It’s not an accident that the breakthrough was announced during the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in New York and as the vote on sanctions in the Security Council was approaching.

As rising global powers and key regional states, Turkey and Brazil saw an opportunity to attain a deal and essentially agreed to one along the lines of the October proposal. The deal was promptly criticized by the United States and others for a variety of reasons. While accurate in its details, some of the criticism was unfair. Sure, Iran now has more enriched uranium than it had when the deal was originally proposed, but even if it had agreed to a deal last year, it still would have produced the same amount of material even if the agreement had gone forward back in October.

The United States was right to continue to push for sanctions after the deal was announced with Brazil and Turkey, but they framed the criticism incorrectly. The sanctions were presented publicly in a way that was harsh and punitive. Washington should have said that while it continues to seek ways to cooperate with Iran on its peaceful nuclear activities, it will seek further sanctions if Iran does not comply with its obligations.

The best approach to Iran is doing two things at once—cooperate with Iran on deals similar to the one negotiated by Brazil and Turkey and increase sanctions for Iran’s refusal to comply with IAEA and UN demands. Doing one without the other is a mistake. A deal demonstrates that the international community will work with Iran if its nuclear activities are inherently peaceful and it is playing by the rules, as is the case with the Tehran research reactor. But, if a deal is negotiated without sanctions when the country is not open about its activities and not cooperating with the IAEA, it sends the wrong signal to Iran. In fact, Tehran was negotiating with the Brazil and Turkey because it was under international pressure. This dual track approach that accidentally emerged is a smart move.


How influential is Iran in the Middle East?

Iran’s influence rose after the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. Despite historical suspicions of Iran, Ahmadinejad earned widespread popularity in the Arab world for his bellicose treatment of the United States and Israel. After Hezbollah’s war with Israel in 2006, Iran helped the group to rearm and extended its influence in Lebanon. So, Iran’s presence in region was strengthened, notably in Iraq, Lebanon, and even Syria.

But recently, there has been a backlash. The country’s belligerence and assertiveness have caused Arab states to be more skeptical and to quietly cooperate with the United States in trying to contain Iran. Ahmadinejad’s standing also fell after the Iranian elections last year as questions about the government’s legitimacy rose. The more the world witnesses the actions of the Iranian government, the less it likes the regime.


What impact will sanctions have on Iran?

It’s too early to tell how sanctions will impact Iran. The downside with sanctions is that it takes a long time to see the impact. So the problem becomes whether or not the sanctions will take effect before the country completes the unwanted activity.

The Iranian economy is suffering and there is a lack of investment in the country’s oil and gas sector—commodities that Iran depends on. Strategically, over the next five to ten years, the country’s economic capacity and investment in infrastructure are going to get weaker and weaker. Sanctions are a big part of this. The ability of sanctions to hurt Iran is not only due to the explicit details, but also the poor investment environment that they create. Western companies are hesitant to invest in an uncertain environment and there may be more sanctions down the road—it’s often not worth the risk.

While Iran is weakened by the sanctions, the government will continue to be defiant in the short term. The regime repressed its people last year, so it’s not as though the government is unwilling to bear a cost and pass it on to its people.

Iran and President Ahmadinejad typically respond to increased international pressure with stronger rhetoric and threaten to do more of what the global community wants it to stop. Essentially, Iran ups the ante. It’s unclear whether Iran has the capacity to carry through with many of its threats to expand its nuclear program, but it’s clearly the government’s response to pressure.

Sanctions have not changed Iran’s behavior as desired, but there’s no good alternative. Military force is both unlikely and undesirable and doing nothing doesn’t seem like a desirable or tenable response.


Where do we go from here? What else needs to be done?

This is clearly one of the most pressing and challenging issues in the world and no one knows how it will end. Ideally, there would be a military option, but a solution through the use of force isn’t possible in this situation. There is a great deal left unresolved and diplomacy is essential.

Some argue that without an obvious military solution, regime change is the best option. In other words, the strategy for tackling Iran’s intransigence is to support the opposition and hope that a different group takes control of the government through peaceful means. And the new government would theoretically be more willing to cooperate with the international community.

While internal reform in Iran is desired, it’s unclear how the outside world can be decisive in bringing about the end of the regime. Plus, there are negative implications of seeming to try to push too hard for regime change. Some have argued that the Obama administration should have offered greater support for the Green Movement immediately after last year’s election, but there are few options available to the United States—it is still not going to invade Iran. Getting too involved in Iran’s domestic politics is a bad idea.

Obama could have done what some of the hotheads in Washington urged earlier this year and gave a rousing, fist-pumping speech putting the United States firmly on the side of the Iranian opposition. But, if the Iranian government went out the next day and killed 100 demonstrators, he would be politically cornered to back up his words of support with deeds. But what deeds? The United States already sanctions Iran and if it’s a bad idea to attack or invade Iran to show support for the opposition, doing it to back up a speech does not make it a good idea. Iranians will be the ones to bring about political change in their country, not American presidents or members of Congress.

So, the only viable strategy that’s left is to raise the cost of not complying with international obligations. While the United States, Europe, and others are ratcheting up pressure on the regime, outside actors need to continue to look for opportunities to cooperate with Iran and build confidence over Iran’s nuclear activities.