The latest US sanctions against Iran signed into law by President Barack Obama on December 31, 2011, would bar foreign firms dealing with the Central Bank of Iran from access to the American financial system. Since the Central Bank of Iran deals with most of the country’s oil-related transactions, this measure when fully implemented would have the effect of badly hurting Iran's oil exports, which provide 80 percent of its revenues. The European Union is separately considering its own sanctions aimed at embargoing oil imports from Iran, which may come into effect by the time this article is published. The main goal of these sanctions is to force Iran to give up its uranium enrichment programme. The Western countries claim that this programme reflects Iran’s intention to develop nuclear weapons, a charge that Iran strongly denies.
To be fair to Iran, the IAEA reports have not so far found any evidence of the diversion of nuclear materials or technology to non-peaceful purposes although they have raised some questions about its nuclear activities. The latest US sanctions come on top of several sets of UN Security Council sanctions adopted over the past several years against Iran’s nuclear programme. These sanctions have failed to persuade Iran to give up uranium enrichment, which is allowed by the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), if placed under IAEA safeguards. In fact, its uranium enrichment programme has expanded and now besides the Natanz facility close to Isfahan, it includes the Fordow enrichment facility buried deep in a mountain complex near Qom. The number of centrifuges at these facilities, which are under IAEA safeguards, has increased to 8,000 by now. While the US has relied so far on sanctions and talks to persuade Iran to stop its uranium enrichment programme, it has not ruled out the military option.
The latest US sanctions have raised tensions in the Persian Gulf region. Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz through which a fifth of the world’s oil passes, if its oil exports are stopped. It also carried out naval exercises near the Strait of Hormuz earlier this month to demonstrate its capability to close the channel, if necessary. The US Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta, responded to the Iranian threat by stressing on January 8, on the CBS show Face the Nation, that the US “will not tolerate the blocking of the Strait of Hormuz.” Panetta cautioned against a unilateral Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, as it could trigger the Iranian retaliation against the US forces in the region. The same message was conveyed to the Israeli leadership by General Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, last week during his brief visit to Israel.
The US and other Western countries claim that proliferation concerns have prompted them to impose sanctions against Iran. This, however, is not the whole story. Washington started imposing economic sanctions against Iran many years before its uranium enrichment programme was exposed. The real US objective has been to bring about a change of regime in Iran because Washington sees in it a threat to its strategic objectives in the Middle East generally and the Persian Gulf region particularly. The ultimate US strategic goal in the Middle East is to maintain its hegemony in the region and control over its oil and gas resources on which depends the prosperity of the West. Washington is also committed to Israel’s security, partly because it views it as an important asset for the realisation of the US strategic objectives in the Middle East. More so, the US wants pliant regimes in the region, which would serve its purposes.
The Islamic Republic of Iran since the very beginning has incurred Washington’s enmity and wrath for having challenged its hegemony. It is a reflection of Washington’s double standards that the same US, which now opposes Iran’s uranium enrichment programme, offered full nuclear fuel cycle facilities, including nuclear reprocessing and uranium enrichment, to Iran during the days of the Ford administration when the Shah of Iran was viewed as a close ally of the West. The Western countries, which bear the responsibility for Israel’s nuclear weapon programme, too lack the moral authority to object to Iran’s nuclear programme, which in any case is peaceful in nature.
Since Tel Aviv considers the Islamic Republic of Iran a mortal enemy, the Israeli lobby in the United States has been pushing for increased pressure on Iran to stop its uranium enrichment programme. Israel has made known its readiness to launch military strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities with or without the collaboration of the US to stop or delay the progress of its nuclear programme. The Obama administration has been trying to dissuade Israel from adopting this course of action because of its dangerous consequences for the peace and stability of the Middle East; for the US influence and forces in the region; and for the American economy that is undergoing a fragile recovery from the recession. Perhaps, in response to the US concerns, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak announced on January 18 that any decision to launch a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities remained “very far away.” However, Israel has been involved in terrorist activities in Iran. It is, generally, believed that Israel was responsible for the recent assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan, who was the fourth Iranian scientist to be killed during the past two years.
There are also reports of the involvement of Israeli and Western intelligence agencies in the covert campaign of explosions at Iranian factories and military sites. The latest example was the huge explosion that destroyed a missile testing site near Tehran on November 12 last year, killing General Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam, the head of Iran’s missile programme. According to an American columnist, Roger Cohen, who writes for the New York Times, these explosions and the earlier havoc caused by the Stuxnet computer worm were the result of a covert US-Israeli drive to sabotage Iran’s nuclear programme.
The standoff between the US and Iran has raised tensions in the Persian Gulf region to the boiling point. The need of the hour is for all the parties concerned to avoid hostilities and adopt the path of negotiations for resolving the issues relating to Iran’s nuclear programme. Neither side should cross the other’s red line. Iran would not accept any measure, which would have the effect of choking its oil exports. Similarly, the US would not tolerate the closure of the Strait of Hormuz. A military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities would have catastrophic results for the region and the world, as warned by the Russian Foreign Minister recently.
Regional countries, like Saudi Arabia and Turkey, should take steps to persuade both sides to cool down and work for a negotiated solution. It is a pity that at this critical juncture when Pakistan should have been actively engaged with the US and Iran to lower the political temperature and encourage negotiations, it is instead bogged down in domestic turmoil and its foreign policy is marked by inactivity on the issue. The ultimate solution of the issues related to Iran’s nuclear programme lies in the acknowledgment by the US and other Western countries of its right to carry out uranium enrichment under the NPT and the avoidance by Iran of any step towards the development of nuclear weapons. A specially designed IAEA regime for oversight of Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities to overcome the Western concerns may provide the way out of the current impasse. Hopefully, the expected talks at Istanbul would help the parties in reaching such a solution.
The writer is a former ambassador to Iran.