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Iran missile test: glimpse of what's ahead if nuclear talks fail

An Iran missile test Monday sent a clear warning to the US: Attack our nuclear facilities, and we'll target your military bases. It showed what US-Iran military gamesmanship might look like. 

Vahid Salemi/AP/File
Iranian workers make repairs to a unit at Tehran's oil refinery in this file photo. EU sanctions targeting the country's vital oil sector went into effect Sunday.

The United States and the European Union began imposing tough new sanctions on Iran’s oil industry this month, with one goal in mind: inflict such economic pain that Iran’s leaders get serious about an international deal to curtail the country’s advancing nuclear program.

But with low-level officials from six world powers meeting with their Iranian counterparts in Istanbul Tuesday to gauge prospects for an agreement, Iran appeared to blast its answer into the skies Monday with the first of three days of ballistic missile drills.

The message: Launch airstrikes on our nuclear facilities, and rest assured we’ll hit you back. And P.S.: Your sanctions may hurt us, but they will never cause us to fold.

The European Union on Sunday imposed a full embargo on imports of Iranian crude oil – last year, the EU purchased about 18 percent of Iran’s oil exports – while the US has begun imposing measures against Iran’s central bank and foreign financial institutions that continue to work with it.

Those sanctions follow a series of negotiations since April between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – the US, Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom – plus Germany, which have so far failed to reach agreement on curbing Iran’s nuclear program.

Obama administration officials point to the impact that previously existing sanctions have had on Iran – including a significant drop in oil exports, which cost the country more than $30 billion in revenue last year alone – and they insist that these new sanctions can mean only more hardship.

“Sanctions are having a major adverse impact on Iran’s economy, and things will go from bad to worse unless Iran gets serious about addressing international concerns about its nuclear program,” says a senior administration official, who joined several other administration officials in discussing the impact of sanctions on Iran on condition of anonymity.

Yet while Iran and sanctions experts agree that the West’s measures are having a deep economic impact in Iran – something even Iran’s leaders are increasingly willing to acknowledge – they are less certain that this will lead to concessions at the negotiating table.

“What the West has decided here is that the punitive track is the only way to get the Iranians to respond,” says George Lopez, an expert at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana in the use of economic sanctions. “But I’m not sure that’s a certainty.”

One thing that could get in the way is the US presidential election, Professor Lopez says.

The latest sanctions “are going to make the Iranian economy scream within about three to four months,” he says.

Given that, and the parameters of a potential deal on Iran’s uranium enrichment that have surfaced in recent negotiations, he says there would be reason “in a neutral political environment” to consider at least an interim agreement possible by this fall.

But a tight US presidential race makes a deal less likely, in part because both sides would have to accept some concessions, he adds: “The Obama camp knows very well that anything that could be construed as a concession to Iran would be seized by [presumptive Republican nominee Mitt] Romney and his people as a sign of Obama’s weakness and failure to protect Israel.”

Lopez insists that sanctions can work, citing how sanctions brought Yugoslavia’s Slobodan Milosevic to the negotiating table and prevented Iraq’s Saddam Hussein from acquiring the weapons of mass destruction he coveted.

Iranian leaders have started to focus their public commentary on how the measures are having their greatest impact on the Iranian people, and the West must be prepared to respond, Lopez says. 

“This round [of sanctions] crosses the line and looks more like the broad sanctions à la Iraq than the targeted sanctions [the West] has always said it was imposing,” he adds. 

The missile exercises send a different message. Iranian military say the games will target mock bases modeled after those of “adventurous nations” that have military bases in the region. That seems a clear warning to the US, which maintains military facilities within range of Iran’s missiles in Afghanistan, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia.

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