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The perfect storm: Three ways to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions – short of war

Partly by design and partly by happenstance, a three-pronged US strategy for checking Iran's nuclear program and the regime in Tehran is emerging: an unprecedented combination of sanctions, covert action, and a Syria-inspired protest movement within Iran.

By Leonard S. Spector / January 18, 2012

Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei confers a rank to a member of Iran's army during a ceremony, in Tehran, Iran on Nov. 16, 2011. Mr. Khamenei and his regime have warned that Iran could block oil tanker shipping lanes in the Gulf in retaliation for sanctions and described US ships as unwelcome interlopers in the region.

AP Photo/Office of the Supreme Leader, File

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Partly by design and partly by happenstance, a US grand strategy for checking Iran’s nuclear ambitions – and for thwarting Iran’s Islamic revolutionary government more broadly – may now be crystallizing. 

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The three-pronged strategy presents a viable alternative to the calls by some in the US for military strikes and direct action to foment regime change in Iran. A combination of intensified economic sanctions and covert action, together with a successful Iranian protest movement could thwart Tehran’s reported push for nuclear weapons without direct American intervention.

The most visible component of the strategy is a set of intensifying sanctions. They are founded in a series of UN Security Council resolutions reflecting the international consensus that Iran’s nuclear program must be curbed. And the United States and other Western nations are reinforcing these sanctions by imposing even tougher measures, among them what seems to be a largely successful embargo on certain “keystone” nuclear commodities needed for Iran’s uranium enrichment program.

In the latest developments, the US has designated the Central Bank of Iran as a “primary money laundering concern” under the USAPATRIOT Act. As a result of that sanction and Great Britain’s penalizing Iran for the wrecking of the British embassy in Tehran, Iran is being isolated from the international banking system, with severe consequences for the Iranian dinar.

Worse is to come, as new US legislation takes effect that will penalize any foreign bank that does business with Iran to facilitate its sales of crude oil. The complementary unfolding plan for Western countries to curtail purchases of Iranian crude oil will strike a body blow to the Iranian economy.

While the stated purposes of these economic sanctions is to pressure Iran to return to the nuclear negotiating table, US officials have been explicit in declaring that for Washington, at least, the sanctions have broader goals. In particular, the Obama administration hopes to force Iran to end its support for international terrorism and its glaring human rights abuses.

In effect, Washington has used the nuclear issue as a rallying point to impose sanctions that seek to undermine the Iranian regime at large. Some have suggested that the unstated goal of the current round of sanctions is really to foment regime change in Tehran. A frequent Western tactic has been to blackball entire organizations linked to the regime – such as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp, the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines, and various Iranian banks – once even a small fraction of their activities is found to have provided direct support for the country’s nuclear program.

The second component of a US strategy, more directly targeted against Iran’s nuclear program, is covert operations, some directly involving Washington, others conducted by Israel or, perhaps, Saudi Arabia, but all contributing to what appears to be a slow-down in Iran’s nuclear advances. These operations have included the Stuxnet computer worm, which destroyed 1,000 uranium enrichment centrifuges at Iran’s Natanz nuclear complex beginning in late 2009 or early 2010.

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