(photo credit: AP)
This week, the European Union approved sanctions of unprecedented severity
against Iran, because of its refusal to desist from enriching uranium. The EU
decision follows the recent fourth UN Security Council sanctions resolution
against Iran, and the subsequent additional package of measures approved by
Congress and the White House.
Three things are worth noting regarding the
new sanctions. They are substantive.
They are likely to have a serious
effect on aspects of the Iranian economy. This effect is almost certain not to
cause a rethink on the part of the Iranian regime regarding its nuclear
Nevertheless, the European decision is significant for an
additional, slightly less tangible reason. It is the latest evidence of a
hardening attitude on the part of the Western democracies with regard to the
Iranian nuclear program.
The new sanctions are focused on the Iranian
financial sector and the country’s vital gas and oil industries. These are
precisely the areas of the Iranian economy most vulnerable to international
From this week on, any further investment or technical
assistance from EU companies in these areas will be prohibited.
particularly vulnerable in this area because, despite its vast oil reserves, the
country lacks the ability to produce sufficient refined petroleum to meet its
In addition, the new sanctions will ban European
companies from providing insurance services to Iranian bodies, and will ban
Iranian banks from opening any additional branches in the European
The former measure is significant because it will negatively
affect the Iranian transport and shipping sectors.
The EU decision was
sufficient to coax from Iran a renewed expression of willingness to reconsider
the long-standing proposal for Teheran to export its enriched uranium to another
country, where it would be converted into fuel rods for a medical research
Teheran has enjoyed toying with the West over this proposal
since its emergence last year, as an exercise to buy time.
But why will
the new measures not be anywhere near sufficient to cause the regime to
reconsider its nuclear stance? They do not threaten to really strike hard at
vital parts of the Iranian economy. And there is reason to believe that even in
the face of genuinely “crippling” sanctions, the rising elite within the Iranian
regime might well calculate their interests according to a different scale than
that used in the West – and choose to brazen it out.
Despite the recent
and ongoing revival of protests, the Islamist regime remains firmly in the
driver’s seat. Incrementally, power in Iran is falling more and more to a very
radical group centered on the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. This group, of
whom President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a senior representative, is a genuinely
ideological body of men, with vast regional ambitions.
protests have hit hard at the regime’s legitimacy at home and its appeal abroad.
For the foreseeable future, what this means is that the regime will increasingly
rule by terror alone, rather than by seeking the consent of the Iranian people.
This is perhaps unsustainable in the long term, but it should not be assumed
that the unrest will lead to the fall of the rulers of Iran any time
In the meantime, the very raison d’etre of the group currently
amassing power within the regime is the promotion and advancement of Iranian
power and influence across the Middle East. A nuclear capability is the
infallible insurance for the promotion of a policy of this kind. Even large
economic discomforts would probably not be enough to cause the ideologues,
militants and security operatives currently on the rise to abandon their nuclear
Small discomforts have no chance of doing so.
So why is
the EU decision this week still of significance? Because it represents an
additional small step toward the emergence of an international climate of
opinion wherein serious and direct measures to stop a nuclear Iran will become
There is still a fair amount of time, according to leading
experts, before the Iranians reach the point of developing a useable nuclear
warhead. In the time that remains, what is taking place is a growing sense in
key circles in the Western democracies that the cost of a nuclear Iran is beyond
what the West will be able to pay in terms of the strategic balance in the
Ultimately, the plain choice is likely to be between accepting
(and seeking to contain) a nuclear Iran, and military action to prevent its
emergence. The EU vote this week is evidence of a slowly ripening international
climate which may in the end conclude that the latter is the preferable
So it is cost-benefit analysis vs. cost-benefit analysis. The
Iranian regime, according to its mode of calculation, is almost certain to
conclude that the current level of sanctions is no reason to reverse its nuclear
ambitions. It is probable that no level of feasible economic pressure will
suffice to bring the forces on the rise in the regime to heel. The West,
meanwhile, appears to be gradually moving toward a position which finds that a
nuclear Iran is an outcome it cannot permit. It is as though two ships at sea,
now still quite distant, are each plotting a course which will set them on the
road to eventual collision.