EU and Teheran: A Collision in Slow Motion
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 ambitions.
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 measures.
From this week on, any further investment or technical assistance from EU companies in these areas will be prohibited.
Iran is particularly vulnerable in this area because, despite its vast oil reserves, the country lacks the ability to produce sufficient refined petroleum to meet its population's needs.
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 Union.
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 reactor.
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.
Undoubtedly the 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 soon.
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 ambitions.
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 feasible.
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 region.
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 option.
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.
Dr. Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Herzliya, Israel