Iran: the year of living dangerously

The European decision to tighten sanctions against Iran is correct. Careful, balanced and measured pressure on Tehran is necessary as we face a particularly dangerous year for relations with the Iranian regime.  

The European decision to tighten sanctions against Iran is correct. Careful, balanced and measured pressure on Tehran is necessary as we face a particularly dangerous year for relations with the Iranian regime


So Europeans have agreed to tighten the international sanctions on Iran by suspending oil imports – good. But the suspension will not come into effect until halfway through the year – good, too. For 2012 will be a year of particular danger in the Iranian nuclear crisis. If ever there was a time for hastening slowly, this is it.

At one level, Western caution in ratcheting up their economic pressure on Iran might seem to play into the mullahs’ hands – time is on the Iranian side, as the centrifuges keep spinning. But sanctions were never going to directly impact Iran’s nuclear programme (as cyber attacks, or the assassination of scientists, might): if they succeed at all it will only be through a longer and more oblique process of conditioning the stand-off; of shifting perceptions of the cost/benefit balance of Iran’s current course; and, over time, of strengthening the hand of anyone in Tehran prepared to argue for exploring a change of direction.

We are, as George Freidman has argued, far from such a conjunction now. Both the West and Iran have the capacity to do each other great damage (Iranian talk of ‘closing’ the straits of Hormuz may be braggadocio but, as the 1980s ‘tanker war’ demonstrated, even sporadic guerrilla action against the traffic that carries 20% of the world’s traded oil out of the Gulf could do horrible things to insurance rates, the oil price, and the global economy). So neither side wants to precipitate a real show-down – yet neither side is remotely ready to move towards some broader accommodation. Especially in what is, in both Tehran and Washington, an election year.

And it is from the American electoral timetable that the greatest danger stems. The world has got used to the quadrennial phenomenon whereby the responsible direction of the world’s most powerful nation is jeopardised, one in year in four, by a bizarrely protracted electoral process. But it is getting worse. Each time around, the pandering to the extremist ‘base’ though the interminable primary process becomes more pronounced, and the sheer irresponsibility of what the Presidential candidates are prepared to claim and promise in pursuit of their parties’ nominations becomes more brazen. ‘Superpacs’ can now pollute the debate without disclosure or restraint; and the old convention that foreign policy should be handled more cautiously, even on a bipartisan basis, is now consigned to history. So the Republican candidates vie to out-do each other in their attacks on President Obama for weakness abroad, and in the trenchancy of their assurances that, as President and in contrast to Obama, they would take decisive action to stop the Iranian bomb. It will need only a small provocation from the Iranian side to generate huge pressure on the President to react in wholly disproportionate ways.

As if this situation were not dangerous enough, there is the additional factor of Israel. Over the past year, as Prime Minister Netanyahu has rebuffed Obama’s efforts at Middle East peace-making and received a hero’s welcome in the US Congress for doing so, America’s inability to ‘deliver’ or even restrain its ally has been starkly exposed. Should the Israeli government decide in the coming months that the time has come to strike the Iranian nuclear facilities, they might not even have to rely on the US-made bunker-buster bombs now lying in their own armouries – the appearance of even a handful of sea-mines in the straits of Hormuz could be enough to precipitate Obama, under the combined pressure of Israel and his domestic opponents, to unleash a devastating strike on Iran, encompassing not just their capabilities around the straits but the network of nuclear facilities as well.

In other words, avoiding a massive conflagration in the Middle East over the year ahead depends on the exercise of caution and restraint by an unstable, theocratic regime in Tehran; by a US President who may find his hopes for a second term undermined by irresponsible opponents; and by an Israeli government with a track-record of acting in the perceived national interest without regard for regional stability or international opinion. It will be a long twelve months to the new President’s inauguration.

So hasten slowly, Europeans. Your economic sanctions are a blunt weapon – but one with two edges. Their importance lies as much in how they work on your friends as on the Iranians. They provide vital support for advocates of moderation, whether in Washington or Jerusalem – an argument for restraint, and for waiting to see what impact they have on Iranian policies. To see us all safely through the next twelve months, the trick for Europeans will be to do to enough to thwart the Western hawks, but not enough to give the hawks in Iran their opportunity. Once the new US President is installed, the world will continue to face the Iranian nuclear challenge. But the climate of prudence and responsibility required to manage it successfully will, hopefully, have been restored.


The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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