Tuesday, October 16, 2007

With Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice calling the Iranian regime liars about their nuclear program, it is time to consider sharply cutting off Iran‘s air links to the outside world. This step would dramatize the seriousness of the efforts to steer Tehran away from developing nuclear weapons. The United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia will begin meeting again Wednesday to discuss tightening U.N. sanctions on Tehran. The Security Council is scheduled to take up the issue in November, having been stymied previously by Russian and Chinese opposition.

The delay followed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s defiant stance during his visit to the United States last month, when he said “the case is closed” on efforts to persuade Iran to set aside its enrichment program. Russia continues to give the Iranians more than the benefit of the doubt. President Vladimir Putin told journalists on Wednesday that Moscow has “no evidence Iran is trying to build a nuclear weapon.” This prompted Secretary Rice’s comments the next day that “There’s an Iranian history of obfuscation and indeed lying” to nuclear inspectors.

Since Iran apparently thinks it can stall off stronger measures with Russian and Chinese aid, the time has come to ratchet up the pressure in a new and more visible direction as an alternative to military action. The United States has imposed sanctions on Iran for more than two decades. The State Department designated Tehran a state sponsor of terrorism in 1984, triggering export controls on dual-use equipment and bans on military equipment exports and on foreign assistance and financial transactions. The Iran-Libya Nonproliferation Act can prohibit foreign companies from doing business with the United States if they have sold nuclear-related material to Iran.

Most of the current sanctions, however, are relatively invisible except to bankers or the would-be exporter or importer. By contrast, suspending Iran Air‘s landing rights and cutting off spare parts and maintenance services would be a very visible and dramatic step to both the Iranian public and the mullahs. It would make clear to the world and the Iranian people that Mr. Ahmadinejad’s support for nuclear weapons, his calls for the destruction of Israel and threats to other neighbors make Tehran a pariah regime that deserves to be quarantined. The boycott would further increase the Iranian public’s disenchantment, particularly among the middle class and commercial sector, with Mr. Ahmadinejad’s failure to improve Iran’s economy. Grounding Iran Air would sharpen the choices between pragmatism and the ideological goals of the government.

To impose an air boycott, the European Union and other countries would simply suspend landing rights for Iran Air, which has direct flights to half a dozen European cities. In addition, stronger efforts could be made to both cut off spare parts for all of Iran Air’s international flights and to enforce export controls against black-market dealers. The West could also suspend maintenance services; Germany and France have maintained Iran Air’s passenger planes in the past. The United States and European Union would serve notice that anyone who flies Iran Air does so at their own risk, and will encourage insurance companies to do the same, magnifying the effectiveness of travel restrictions.

If necessary, the United States could use two long-standing pieces of legislation that authorize the United States to suspend American landing rights for airlines that fly into airports which present security threats. The International Security and Development Cooperation Act of 1985 authorizes the United States to inspect the security of foreign airports that pose a high risk of introducing danger to international travel or any airport that the Secretary of Transportation “considers appropriate.”

Section 551(e)(2) authorizes the revocation of U.S landing rights for carriers that continue to use such airports. In addition, Section 11552 of the Federal Aviation Act allows the same revocation for service to any nation which aids a terrorist organization that threatens aircraft. Iran provides support to Hezbollah, which hijacked TWA Flight 847 in 1985 and murdered a U.S. Navy diver.

The U.S. government could start by requesting permission to conduct an up-to-date security check of Tehran Airport. If Iran refuses, that would be grounds for blacklisting the airport. Some European countries may initially be reluctant to go along, but it’s better for them to deal with a landing-rights dispute now than it would be to face the prospect of a military conflict with Iran in the future. Short-term profits and convenience should not outweigh the truly dangerous consequences of nuclear weapons in the hands of the Iranian mullahs.

An air boycott may not be foolproof, but is certainly worth exploring to demonstrate to Iranians the seriousness of the concerns generated by their leaders. With Saddam Hussein gone, Iran is such a major regional power that it does not need nukes to defend itself. Iranians should think about that if they want to keep their planes flying.

Michael B. Kraft is a consultant and former State Department counterterrorism official. Brett Wallace is a research coordinator at the International Center for Terrorism Studies.

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