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Can Sanctions Bring Iran to the Table?

Author: Greg Bruno
August 3, 2010

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After a ten-month delay punctuated with fresh rounds of economic noose-tightening, stalled talks over Iran's controversial nuclear program appear to have new energy. Three days after EU ministers enacted a fresh set of restrictions (DeutscheWelle) on Iranian banking and energy sector investment, Tehran's ruling mullahs called for new negotiations to discuss a proposed nuclear fuel swap. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said talks on the swap could resume as soon as September (PressTV). U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley confirmed that a fresh sit-down is likely "in the coming weeks."

Whether diplomacy can bear fruit is an open question: Some critics are skeptical. Michael Adler of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars writes in Politico that efforts to negotiate a way out of the Iranian nuclear impasse are beginning to make the film Groundhog Day "look like an action movie," though even Adler acknowledges that despite Iran's long history of persistent recalcitrance, diplomacy is not dead. CFR's Meghan O'Sullivan, an expert on international sanctions regimes, warns that unless more forceful economic pressure is paired with diplomacy, behaviors are unlikely to change.

Crisis Guide: Iran

Others believe sanctions and Iranian overtures give hope that new talks can succeed (DemocracyArsenal). The Atlantic's Max Fisher writes that the time might finally be ripe for diplomacy to pay dividends. As CFR's Steven Simon and Ray Takeyh see it, while a military response to Iranian nuclear ambitions may seem appealing at times, political realities at home and abroad continue to make negotiations a far more desirable option (WashPost).

Still, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen reiterated on NBC's Meet the Press on August 1 that military options "remain on the table" for the United States, a position U.S. and Israeli officials have repeated often.

Mullen's warning comes amid conflicting assessments of Iran's nuclear capabilities. CIA chief Leon Panetta says Iran has enough low-enriched uranium to produce two bombs (ABC), but that material would need to be further enriched and mounted on a missile, a process that could take at least two years. The Financial Times reported July 22 that the number of centrifuges operating at Natanz has declined in the last year, and many more sit idle. While David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security cautions against underestimating Iran's enrichment capabilities, speculation persists that Tehran's nuclear program is "being undermined by sabotage, sanctions, or the incompetence of the regime's scientists," according to the FT.

Iran's economy may be starting to feel the bite of the West's sanction push. The new EU measures, and recent UN and U.S. restrictions, target Iran's energy sector in an attempt to further cripple the Iranian economy and force Iran into negotiations. The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) estimates such efforts will reduce the country's real GDP growth into next year, though recent jumps in oil prices could counter the fall. A government effort to impose a 70 percent annual income tax on Iran's powerful merchant class was met with protests and shuttered shops last month--and led to an eventual backtrack (Economist) by Ahmadinejad. But as the EIU notes, the tax hike proposal signaled more than a class struggle--it also betrayed the Iranian government's growing concern over its revenue base.

Still, sanctions alone may not be enough to force Iran's nuclear negotiating hand, analysts contend. For one, as European firms pull out of Iran following the latest EU action, Chinese and Russian companies are looking to fill the void (InsideIran), offsetting any punitive damage. (The United States has already warned China (FT) about taking advantage of Europe's pullout.) An international strategy of relying on Iranian public opposition to push Tehran to act may also be ill-fated. While recent public opinion polls hint at widespread dissatisfaction (IPS) with President Ahmadinejad's government, even opposition figures have criticized international sanctions efforts as detrimental to ordinary Iranians (Telegraph). Perhaps playing to that strain of popular opinion (PDF), Ahmadinejad used a speech in Tehran on August 2 to deride the suggestion of a pending military strike. He then challenged U.S. President Barack Obama to battle of a different sort: a televised debate (Reuters).

Additional Analysis

CFR's Charles A. Kupchan examines why "closing off dialogue with Iran would be a precipitous and dangerous mistake."

John Limbert, the outgoing head of the U.S. State Department's Iran desk, tells Foreign Policy he's doubtful the two sides can talk constructively, despite the Obama administration's best intentions.

Read the IAEA's latest report (PDF) on Iran's nuclear program.

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