Why Iran may now be more vulnerable to sanctions

Political turmoil and the growing influence of the Revolutionary Guard may make Iran more vulnerable to any upcoming sanctions, as the Obama Administration considers new measures to curb Iran’s nuclear program.

Iran’s internal unrest and the growing influence of the Revolutionary Guard may make the Islamic Republic more vulnerable to any upcoming sanctions, as the Obama Administration considers new measures to curb Iran’s nuclear program.

Years of sanctions aimed at stopping Iran’s nuclear progress – three layers imposed by the UN Security Council, and a host of measures from the US and European Union – have done little to change Iran’s policies.

Iran’s top officials, in fact, regularly boast that sanctions have forced them to new levels of technical prowess and self-sufficiency, by enriching uranium and building from scratch what they say is a peaceful nuclear power program.

But as the White House signals that it is pursuing targeted sanctions against Iran – a shift from the “crippling sanctions” once posited by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and the bills before Congress to strangle gasoline imports to Iran – analysts suggest that sanctions could have greater impact today.

Iran is “more vulnerable in two ways,” says Shahram Chubin, a Geneva-based Iran expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

First, protests and street clashes since disputed presidential elections last June means that a “significant” portion of Iranians “are likely to blame the regime for sanctions which are not so broad as to hurt everybody,” says Dr. Chubin.

Second, the Revolutionary Guard’s expanding control over more diverse chunks of the Iranian economy – including billions of dollars of new acquisitions and contracts in the past six months – make it a “bigger target [and] so presumably it could be targeted relatively accurately,” says Chubin.

Still, he adds, even a careful combination of such sanctions – aimed solely at the Revolutionary Guard and its front companies, for example – is not likely to make Iran “more vulnerable in the sense that tomorrow they are going to stop the [nuclear] program.”

France rejects Iran's ultimatum

Iran’s nuclear standoff with UN Security Council powers plus Germany deepened on Monday when France rejected a new deadline set by Iran over the weekend for acceptance of Tehran’s revised terms for a nuclear fuel swap.
The original deal put to Iran by those nations last October to exchange Iran’s low-enriched uranium for higher grade fuel it needs for medical purposes – with an informal end-of-year deadline – was first accepted, then rejected by Iran.
“We are not the ones who have to decide whether to accept what they want to impose on us,” said French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. “No, this is not the way it is done.”

US buys time?

Given the political turmoil in Iran and its apparent inability until recently to coordinate a response to the nuclear offer, the US has so far been reluctant to impose measures on Iran.

The Obama administration promised that there would be “consequences” if Iran did not accept by the end of the year the nuclear fuel swap, which would have required Iran to ship out of the country the bulk of its low-enriched uranium – enough to have built a bomb if enriched to a much higher level. But UN weapons inspectors have reported that Iran’s enrichment efforts have slowed in recent months, with the pace of newly installed centrifuges dropping substantially, and reportedly not even 4,000 of those 8,700 already installed at Iran’s main plant at Natanz working.

Administration officials, quoted anonymously by The New York Times over the weekend, described a nuclear program in some disarray – and therefore of little immediate risk of producing a weapon, even if Iran chose to “break out” of the safeguard restrictions of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

“For now, the Iranians don’t have a credible breakout option, and we don’t think they will have one for at least 18 months, maybe two or three years,” a senior administration official close to Iran strategy told the Times.

Add to that reported covert Western action aimed at slowing down Iran's nuclear program and there is more time for diplomacy to work, says Chubin.

“There are things we don’t see, like sabotage and so on, defections – all of that is probably quite effective” at slowing down Iran’s program, says Chubin, author of “Iran’s Nuclear Ambitions.”

“The thing is the deadline. If you keep shifting your estimate as to when [Iran is] going to achieve some capability, you are also shifting the time you’ve got for diplomacy to work,” notes Chubin. “Basically, US policy is to buy time. Nobody thinks [Iranians] are going to reverse the program. They may freeze it a little bit, slow it down; but they are not going to reverse it. So you may be able to live with the functional equivalent of a limping program.”

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