- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 30, 2006

Results of Iran’s elections for its powerful Assembly of Experts and some 100,000 local government seats reflect dissatisfaction with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s leadership. This is principally seen and felt by the electorate as the lack of progress in economic reform, although his authoritarian rule and idiosyncratic style can hardly help.

Even though Iran’s uranium enrichment program — based on technology obtained illegally through the A.Q. Khan network — remains a popular and unifying centerpiece of Tehran’s policy, the increasing support for moderate conservatives such as former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani over the hard-liners surrounding Mr. Ahmadinejad offers some hope the race between the bomb and democracy in Iran is not yet lost.

Although the enrichment activities are generally considered to be solely for a weapons program — based on the logicality of their energy, military ties and clandestine nature — it is unclear how far the program will be taken. Some argue that Tehran seeks only the option to go nuclear and it will stop short of weaponization. Others fear that a decision to acquire weapons has already been taken.

The North Korean test, following Iran’s defiant responses to the international community’s call for cessation of Tehran’s program, may buy Iran some time. But Tehran seems in no mood to negotiate and any hope has been eclipsed by its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment and actions such as Mr. Ahmadinejad’s inauguration of the Khondab heavy water production plant and demonstration of the operation of a cascade of 164 centrifuges. Though the U.S. government has been distracted, it continues to act in a measured way and will seek sanctions.

The U.S. caution is certain to be directed toward European allies, Russia and China who have been wary about the U.S. administration’s true intentions. Many critics — learning from the run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom — fear that the U.S. will seek to impose sanctions that are bound to fail, which in turn will be used to justify military action. Ironically, this opposition to severe economic sanctions — the likely position of some veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council — could play to that strategy.

So how could economic sanctions be constructed to both pressure Iran — to either roll back its program or restrain its full development short of weaponization — and be acceptable to critics of U.S. proposals?

Iran’s pattern in its quest for nuclear weapons has emulated that of the despotic regime of North Korea. And Kim Jong-il misjudged the international community’s response to his missile tests and nuclear test. They led promptly to U.N. Security council resolutions and international sanctions. One would think this should provide an example for Iran.

But there are two significant differences between the two nations. Iran’s government and its nuclear program enjoy significant popular support; and Iran has oil.

Observers often talk of the race between democracy and Tehran’s development of the bomb, but a future democratic Iran would not necessarily eschew nuclear weapons. Anti-American and anti-Western feelings in the Middle East are likely to take generations to fade, even if the U.S. led intervention in Iraq is ever finally perceived as a success.

Iran’s oil gives it two advantages: By cutting production and influencing OPEC, Tehran can threaten, and may be able to inflict, some economic damage on the international community. And Iran has money. Iran can influence Russia and others. Such countries may be tempted to sell nuclear technologies to Iran or otherwise breach sanctions.

However Iran’s oil is only part of its economic story. Iran is highly dependent on inward investment for jobs and technology. Seventy percent of the population is of working age and unemployment is high. The economy could be its Achilles heal.

The elections seem to give credence to this suggestion. Iran is too dependent on oil revenue and hampered by a bloated, inefficient state sector. Although it has accumulated $40 billion in foreign exchange reserves on the back of high oil prices, it has depended on foreign investment in recent years. Companies such as Total and Renault have made recent investments in Iran and the nation imports most of its consumer goods.

But none of this has successfully addressed its estimated 11 percent unemployment, 13 percent inflation or shortage of skilled labor. Iran can hardly afford a nuclear weapons program. It spent some $14 billion on its uranium enrichment program in the last 10 years.

Either U.N. Security Council-mandated economic sanctions or those imposed by a coalition of the willing could exert sufficient pressure to influence the people and government of Iran to abandon its nuclear program or at least remain a latent nuclear power by stopping short of weaponization. Together with public diplomacy — that exploits the growing cosmopolitan, liberal sectors of Iranian society by clearly showing a civil nuclear program, although prestigious, is not required for energy and is obviously a cover for a weapons program — economic sanctions could succeed. U.S. diplomatic success — agreement of such sanctions — will hinge on whether they are seen capable of achieving the stated aims.

Intelligence estimates accepted by the U.S. administration indicate there is a 5- to 10-year window of opportunity before Iran acquires nuclear weapons. This would be enough time to allow the effects of economic sanctions to be seen and give the next administration time to contemplate military strikes if sanctions and diplomatic efforts fail.

OWEN PRICE

A visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The views expressed are his own.

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