Ahead of Iran nuclear report, plenty of apocalyptic talk

Words like 'crippling' and 'collapse' and 'lethal' are being used by US proponents of tougher sanctions ahead of an IAEA report on Iran's nuclear program. Is that smart diplomacy?

Jeff Overs/BBC/Reuters
Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak (r.) talks to Jeremy Vine, presenting the BBC's Andrew Marr Show, in London November 4. Ahead of the next IAEA report Ehud Barak told Israel Radio that since Russia and China are unlikely to back 'lethal' sanctions on Iran, it would be unwise 'to take any option off the table,' meaning that military strikes should be considered.

The contours of what comes next in the saga of Iran's nuclear program are becoming clearer: A push for new sanctions on the Iranian regime, led by some American politicians and cheered on from the sidelines by Israel, that proponents describe in extremely stark terms.

Words like "lethal" are being used to suggest fresh sanctions, with "collapse" used to explain a desired end result in Iran. That isn't likely to happen, but the gulf between that sort of language and the more moderated tone from Europe is an indication that while alarm is rising, there is far from an international consensus over what to do about Iran's nuclear program. 

The Monitor's Ariel Zirulnick rounded up European opinion today, and it ranged from the German foreign minister warning that war talk strengthens Iran's hard-line leadership, to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev saying that threats of war are "pretty dangerous rhetoric."

Meanwhile, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Israel Radio that since Russia and China are unlikely to back "lethal" sanctions on Iran, it would be unwise "to take any option off the table," meaning that military strikes should be considered. He also said a naval blockade to cut off Iran's oil exports might be a good idea.

There does appear to be agreement, at least between Western Europe and the US, that stronger sanctions are the next move if the report reveals, as expected, that Iran has been concealing work on a nuclear weapons program. But some in the US are pushing for such an extreme sanctions regime that it's hard to see the rest of the world signing up for it.

Sen. Mark Kirk (R) of Illinois called yesterday for new sanctions to "collapse the Central Bank of Iran" (a move that would make it very difficult for Iran to sell oil and thus would ruin vast portions of the Iranian economy) and said he will introduce a bill laying out how that would be done sometime this week.

"We have to use the strongest non-military means available to reduce the coming danger to America, Saudi Arabia, and Israel,” Senator Kirk said in a statement.

It's not clear how unilateral US action could lead to a "collapse" of Iran's central bank. A current bill contains language that would cut access to the US market for any financial institution doing business with the Iranian central bank – a powerful incentive for some institutions, but not others. At any rate, successfully doing so would throw all of Iran into turmoil with unpredictable consequences.

Could it lead Iran to cry "uncle" and give up its nuclear program? Perhaps.

Could it lead to the country striking out, either at Israel via its close ally Hezbollah in Lebanon or by seeking to attack and disrupt oil traffic through the Hormuz Strait, as it did during the so-called tanker war in the 1980s? That's possible, too.

How the Iranian public will respond to the collapse of the currency, soaring prices, and the inability to import or export, is anyone's guess.

Kirk appears to be aware of how severe his proposal is, but argued in a press conference yesterday that Iran is "the most dangerous" regime in the world, and said that if it develops a bomb it's "quite likely" that they "will transfer [it] to Hezbollah." 

Asked at the press conference whether he was worried that cutting off Iran's roughly 3.5 million barrels a day of oil production could lead to a surge in oil prices and damage the US and other economies, Mr. Kirk said he wasn't, given Saudi Arabian enmity for Iran.  

“Saudi Arabia has said they will match any reduction in Iranian sales and they have the capability to do that," Kirk said. "I think given the view of the Saudi government they would mess over the Iranians at the first available opportunity by increasing oil production.“

That Saudi Arabia is both capable of making up for all lost Iranian production, and willing to do so, is very much an open question. Oil revenue is the lifeblood of Saudi Arabia, and high prices are attractive. Some in the oil markets also say Saudi Arabia doesn't have the market power to keep prices stable if Iran – the world's fourth-largest producer – is removed from the equation.

What comes next? Public statements are simply part of the diplomatic dance around Iran's nuclear program. In the background, diplomats are working to craft a sanctions proposal that big powers, including Russia, are willing to get behind. They are unlikely to end up being as crippling as Kirk and many others would like. There will be dire predictions as a consequence. Then the whole process will begin again ahead of the next IAEA report on Iran.

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