Can sanctions stop Iran’s nuclear drive? Since the passage of new U.S. and multilateral measures this summer, there have been unmistakable signs that Iran has begun to feel the economic pinch. Prompted by mounting international pressure, a slew of foreign multinationals have exited the Iranian market, while a range of countries - from South Korea to the United Arab Emirates - are in the process of curtailing their financial dealings with the Islamic republic.
But, despite these heartening signs, the ultimate success of sanctions depends on what could come after. In order for economic pressure to be taken seriously in Tehran, Iran’s leaders must be convinced that their continued intransigence on the nuclear front will lead to something far worse.
For the moment, at least, they clearly are not. That is in large part because, despite repeated assurances from U.S. officials that “all options remain on the table” in dealing with the Iranian regime, Tehran has been permitted to wage not one but two irregular wars against America for more than half a decade and to do so with virtual impunity.
The first has been in Iraq. Although its profile has diminished somewhat from its heyday in 2005-07, the Islamic republic continues to play a major - and destabilizing - role in the former Ba’athist state. “The Iranians … continue to fund, train and provide weapons and ammunition to Shiite extremist groups,” Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, told reporters in Baghdad in July.
It is difficult to overstate the impact of Iran’s interference. In August, the new U.S. ambassador to Iraq, James F. Jeffrey, publicly estimated that working through like-minded militias and irregular forces, Tehran has been responsible for “up to a quarter” of American casualties since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. Iran, in other words, is engaged in a bloody war of attrition against the United States in Iraq - an offensive that so far has gone largely unnoticed by the American public.
A similar state of affairs exists in Afghanistan. This summer’s disclosure of military documents by Internet clearinghouse WikiLeaks included important proof that Iran is waging what amounts to a “covert campaign” against the U.S.-led coalition there as well. The Iranian government, the documents charge, is supplying funds, weapons and training to Taliban insurgents and offering them safe haven from coalition operations. In addition, Iran reportedly has taken “a series of steps to expand and deepen its influence in Afghanistan” by paying off Afghan parliamentarians and marginalizing reformist government ministers in the Karzai government. Iranian companies operating in Afghanistan are even said to have levied sizable bounties on the heads of American soldiers. These activities have helped sustain and strengthen the anti-coalition insurgency raging anew on the war on terror’s first front.
So far, these irregular wars have been largely cost-free for the Iranian regime. America’s retaliation, in the rare cases when it has materialized, has been sporadic in nature and limited in scope. As a result, Iran has become convinced that it will not suffer any meaningful consequences for its misbehavior on those fronts - or the nuclear one.
None of which is to say that military action against Iran is desirable. Iran’s nuclear endeavor is massive and diffuse. It also is fortified and resilient, posing a daunting operational challenge. Moreover, incomplete intelligence about the scope and breadth of Iran’s atomic efforts suggests that delay of Iran’s nuclear program, rather than its destruction, will by necessity be the default objective of military planners. But as imperfect as it is, such a coercive component is essential to the success of U.S. diplomacy. Simply put, Washington needs to convince Iran that a military option, while not desirable, is both viable and inescapable if Tehran does not change course.
Doing so, however, first requires the United States to re-establish its strategic credibility with the Iranian regime. Most directly, this means imposing, and then executing, new rules of engagement vis-a-vis Iranian irregular forces and proxies active in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Simultaneously, additional emphasis is needed on augmenting security along Iraq and Afghanistan’s still-porous borders with Iran, thereby complicating continued infiltration and subversion by the Islamic Republic. A range of other irregular warfare initiatives can be harnessed as needed to help dismantle, disrupt and deter Iranian activities in both theaters.
The overall objective is clear. Only when Iran’s war on the United States in those places begins to take a real toll will its leaders come to believe that Washington and its allies stand ready to act on other provocations as well. And that, in turn, may prompt Tehran to take the current sanctions regime far more seriously than it does at the moment.
Ilan Berman is vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council.