Time to Move from Tactics to Strategy on Iran
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Iran is not yet in such dire circumstances. Still, it has absorbed unprecedented blows that few predicted would come to pass even a year ago. In a June 2011 brief on sanctions,14 the Iran Task Force had noted a Congressional Research Service report that suggested Iran’s oil production could fall to 3.3 million barrels per day by 2015 because of dwindling foreign investment.15 In fact, Iran’s oil production had dropped to under 3 million barrels a day by July 2012— less than what its old rival, Iraq, is now producing—in part because of the decline of aging fields but primarily because it made no sense to keep pumping oil that Iran could not easily sell. Iran’s exports fell by more than half, from an average 2.5 million barrels a day in 2011 to under 1 million barrels in July 2012, recovering slightly to 1.4 million barrels in December.16 US officials and independent oil experts have estimated that Iran lost at least $40 billion in oil revenues in 2012 as a result of a European Union embargo on new oil purchases and on insurance for Iranian oil shipments that went into effect on July 1 and US sanctions that are forcing Iran’s remaining customers to scale back purchases. Iran’s oil minister acknowledged in January 2013 that Iranian oil sales in 2012 had dropped by 40 percent and repatriated oil earnings had dropped by 45 percent.17
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While the drawbacks of a nuclear Iran are grave, the ramifications of a premature military strike—what the US military refers to as “second- and third-order effects”—could also be dire. Among them:
- Iran and its allies are in a position to retaliate against Israel with thousands of missiles and rockets. Uzi Rubin, the father of Israeli missile defense, estimated in 2012 that Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas possessed 13,000 such weapons that could hit the central core of the Jewish state, including 1,500 that could reach greater Tel Aviv.43 Some of those missiles were used or destroyed during a November 2012 mini-war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza during which Israeli anti-missile defensive systems such as the Iron Dome also proved their worth. However, Iran’s and Hezbollah’s arsenals remain and some missiles would get through in the event of a wider conflict.
- Israel and the United States would face international condemnation, and the multilateral coalition against Iran so painstakingly constructed over the past four years could dissolve, along with sanctions enforcement. It would thus be far more difficult to prevent Iran from rebuilding its program and actually making nuclear weapons.44
- Iran would likely expel IAEA inspectors and withdraw from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, thereby eliminating the most valuable source of information now available to the international community on Iran’s nuclear program.
- Iran would probably increase support for militant groups in Afghanistan that target US personnel, making a US withdrawal even harder and further destabilizing Afghanistan. Iran could also stir the pot in other strategic countries such as Bahrain and could target US military installations there and in other GCC countries.
- The mere fact of a new confrontation in the region would drive up oil prices, potentially creating a new global economic crisis.
- Thousands of Iranians would be killed by the attacks—if not immediately, then from the spread of radioactive and other toxic materials. Iran would recoup much of the regional and international support it has lost because of its Syria policy; domestically, the Khamenei regime would likely be strengthened, putting off chances for political reform.
These potential adverse consequences underline the need to redouble efforts to reach a diplomatic resolution of the crisis.
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Estimates of how long it would take Iran to “break out” and dash toward a bomb vary from a few months to a few years, and there is growing concern that it may be impossible to detect Iranian diversion sufficiently in advance to prevent it. Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the non-proliferation and disarmament program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said Iran is unlikely to be able to marry a nuclear weapon to a deliverable missile until 2015 or 2016, but that the country could produce a warhead for overland delivery much earlier, especially if it succeeds in operating more advanced centrifuges.10 To decrease the chances of a breakout, IAEA inspectors should be allowed to visit Fordow and the main enrichment plant at Natanz more frequently.11 Fitzpatrick said Iran should agree to real-time camera monitoring in its enrichment halls, something that is not currently part of its safeguards agreement. Iran should also ratify and implement the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty as part of a comprehensive deal.
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Sanctions are having other negative effects on Iranian society. They are further decreasing the transparency of the Iranian economy, concentrating resources in the hands of the regime, and hurting the very constituencies—such as the middle class—predisposed to like the United States. They are accelerating the brain drain of educated Iranians to foreign countries and also hurting the working class as factories fire blue collar workers because they lack imported parts and other materials needed to keep the workers employed. Drug addiction, prostitution, and robberies41 are on the rise. Iranians encountered during a 2012 visit to Tehran were demoralized, even despairing. “This country is broken,” said one Iranian, whose child had recently lost a well-paying factory job.42