AP Photo/Office of the Supreme Leader, File
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.

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.

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. 

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.

They have also included a series of targeted killings of leading Iranian nuclear scientists – a disturbing dimension of covert operations in which Washington has categorically denied involvement.

In addition, an explosion in November destroyed an Iranian long-range missile complex (and killed a leading figure in Iran’s missile program). A second blast, reported by Iranian state media in mid-December, wrecked a newly opened steel plant. (Foreign reports said the facility might have been attempting to produce embargoed high-strength “maraging steel” for Iran’s enrichment centrifuges.) Iran has said the missile facility and steel plant explosions were accidents, and a report that yet another explosion had destroyed Iran’s uranium conversion plant at Isfahan on Nov. 28, proved to be false.

Nonetheless, the episodes are a reminder that although President Obama and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta appear, for the moment, to have ruled out an overt military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, covert operations can have a devastating impact of their own. The loss of a stealthy US reconnaissance drone over Iran on Dec. 4 indicates clandestine US activities are continuing.

The third major component of a possible grand strategy for addressing the Iranian nuclear threat might be termed “Operation Arab Spring.” If the regime of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad becomes the next victim of popular revolution in the Middle East, an objective the US is actively promoting, Iran will lose its only national ally in the region. This will intensify its international isolation and hamper its mischief-making through south-Lebanon-based Hezbollah.

More important, however, if the opposition movement in Syria ousts Mr. Assad, in spite of his wholesale slaughter of anti-regime elements, this development will almost certainly stimulate a revival of reform movement protests in Iran. This time, however, Iranian leaders will have fewer tools at hand to suppress an uprising because of the increased risk that unbridled repression could trigger external intervention. With the Iranian economy staggered by the onslaught of ever-tighter sanctions, mass protests and general strikes could bring the regime to its knees.

A new, more moderate, and possibly more secular government in Tehran might continue to harbor nuclear weapon aspirations for the long term. But in its effort to build international good will, end Iran’s isolation, and restore the country’s economic well-being, it would certainly be more amenable to suspending Iran’s sensitive nuclear activities than Iran’s current leaders.

Most estimates project that Iran could have the makings of a small nuclear arsenal in one to three years. But a “perfect storm” may be brewing of unusually debilitating sanctions, intensified covert attacks, and the powerful spur to popular action from the fall of yet another repressive Middle East regime near by in Syria.

This unprecedented combination, if exploited effectively, may be able to deflect Iran from its nuclear course, without the need for direct US or Israeli military intervention. This could be the Obama administration’s unannounced game plan for the months ahead.

Leonard S. Spector is executive director of the Washington, D.C., office of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and has written extensively on nonproliferation issues. His comments are written in his personal capacity; the James Martin Center does not take positions on public policy issues.

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