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Can Sanctions Bring Iran to the Table?

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
January 24, 2012

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The European Union adopted an oil embargo against Tehran (BBC) on Monday, banning all new contracts and agreeing to freeze the assets of Iran's central bank within the EU. The move follows new sanctions from the United States on Iran's oil and financial sectors. The EU--responsible for 20 percent of Iranian oil exports--and the United States have also been trying to persuade major importers of Iranian oil in Asia--China, Japan, India, and South Korea--to reduce their purchases in order for these sanctions to bite. The efforts aim to pressure Iran to halt its controversial nuclear program.

What's at Stake

The United States and the EU worry that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons capability, which Tehran consistently denies. The latest round of sanctions is aimed at bringing Iran back to the negotiation table and ultimately halting its uranium enrichment program. The sanctions also take place in a climate of increasing tension and concern over U.S. military action, an option the Obama administration has said remains on the table. The administration hopes the sanctions will cause enough economic pain to force Tehran to engage in diplomacy. A visit by IAEA investigators to Iran (FT) this month to seek explanations over its nuclear activities will be watched for signs of Tehran's willingness to negotiate.

The Debate

Following the U.S. sanctions late last year, Iran warned that it would close the strategic Strait of Hormuz--a crucial passageway for the global oil supply--if its oil exports are affected. Iranian lawmakers repeated the threats (VOA) following the EU sanctions.

Yet, as TIME's Tony Karon notes, both sides seek a diplomatic solution. The United States hopes that in the coming weeks, Iran will return to talks with the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council: Russia, China, France, Britain, and the United States, plus Germany). Laura Rozen (Yahoo) reports that Washington has prepared a proposal in which Iran would agree to halt enrichment of uranium to 20 percent and turn over its existing stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium in exchange for no new penalties from the UN Security Council.

But CFR's Ray Takeyh has expressed doubts that the Iranian negotiators would agree to "relinquish that stockpile." Iran's enrichment of uranium up to 20 percent brings it much closer to developing a nuclear weapon.

Plus, analysts remain divided over fundamental questions of how close Iran is to actually making a bomb or whether it has even decided to make one. Yousaf Butt, a consultant for the independent Federation of American Scientists, says, "Iran is not doing anything that violates its legal right to develop nuclear technology" (ForeignPolicy.com). However, David Albright of Washington-based think tank ISIS says, "Iran has already overcome many obstacles on the path to finally acquiring nuclear weapons." He adds, "Downplaying the threat can end up serving to undermine the development of non-military methods to keep Iran from building nuclear weapons."

Policy Options

Options for dealing with Iran--from diplomacy and regime change to covert action and military strike--are highly contested among policymakers and analysts, as this CFR Crisis Guide shows. "The Iran crisis (FT) is moving closer to both of the worst-case outcomes that people fear: Iran with a bomb or a bombing campaign to stop it," says Mark Fitzpatrick of the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies. But currently, Takeyh says, " we are on the threshold not of war but of diplomacy."

To allow enough time for diplomacy to work, there have to be small but significant successes, says Matthew Bunn of Harvard (NYT). He suggests the following deals: Iran agrees not to build up stocks of either 3.5 percent or 20 percent enriched uranium any further, not to increase the number of operating centrifuges if no further sanctions or murders of scientists take place (although Washington has disavowed any involvement in these killings), and not to enrich uranium to 20 percent anymore in return for receiving fuel for the Tehran research reactor.

Background Materials

Foreign Affairs.com features an intensifying debate over the case for and against a military attack against Iran to deter its nuclear program.

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