How Sanctions Against Iran Could Backfire

It is no secret that Iran is developing its nuclear capacity in a clandestine and deceptive manner. Yet ironically it is our reaction to Iranian intransigence that is more likely to lead to an Iranian bomb. And it's not for the reasons that many have cited.

A recent New York Times report states that U.S. intelligence agencies do not believe Iran is in the process of putting together a nuclear weapon. Analysts think that Iran is merely trying to gain the capability to have a bomb, but without actually going through the motions of building an arsenal.

For those who follow Iranian developments closely, this is no revelation. From Iran experts such as Gary Sick* to computer models like the one developed by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, the consensus among the non-paranoid has been that Iran is pursuing the technology without seeking to detonate a bomb. Even Mohammad Reza Shah, the pro-American, pre-revolution king of Iran who actually began the nuclear program, had a similar policy. He is said to have claimed that he did not "want the bomb yet, but if anyone in the neighborhood has it, we must be ready to have it."

So why would Iran want to go through the trouble of developing the technology without actually assembling a weapon? The simplest answer may be cost. If Iran were to build and test a bomb, its arch-nemesis Saudi Arabia would likely follow suit, touching off a costly arms race in the region. And as other nations rush to join the nuclear club Iran would lose any security edge it would have gained from going nuclear in the first place.

And here's the problem. As Iran continues work on its uranium enrichment program, our government has decided to pursue increasingly punitive sanctions as a way to force negotiations with Iran. These negotiations, our government hopes, will ultimately bring a permanent stop to Iran's clandestine nuclear efforts.

With economic pressure increasing, however, Iran is faced with a dilemma. If it refuses to negotiate but decides to continue on its present course there will be no endgame in sight. It will face the prospect of never detonating a bomb, and thus remaining in a sanctions purgatory, which already includes a high rate of inflation that could spell headaches for the regime down the line.

So what if the cost of these sanctions, over the long term, becomes greater than any potential cost of an arms race? It is this calculus that may eventually lead Iran to throw caution to the wind and detonate a nuclear device as soon as it reaches that capability. America, through its sanctions, may be pushing Iran to acquire the bomb.

After all, a bomb in hand would provide Iran with exactly the kind of leverage to sit down at the negotiating table and strike a deal that would make the sanctions go away. And it would allow it to show the world that it never backed down in the face of American pressure; that it reached a deal from a position of strength. This is the approach that North Korea took when it set off its first crude device back in 2006: detonate to negotiate.

Through post-detonation negotiations, Iran could still achieve its original goal: To maintain some level of nuclear capability without keeping an arsenal. In the meantime, however, the world would risk that Saudi Arabia would not sit by passively -- it, too may build a weapon. Under such a scenario, Iran would be forced to grow its own stockpile and weapons delivery systems rather than negotiate with the United States. Thus, the nightmare scenario of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East would become a reality.

It is commendable that our leaders have not risked what would certainly be a calamitous war with Iran over this controversial nuclear program. But sanctions may not be a sensible option either.

So what can we, as Americans, do? As much as it goes against our classic impulses to always act forcefully, the best strategy for dealing with Iran's nuclear program will be to drop the talk of war and drop the sanctions. In their place, we must adopt a simple maxim: "First, do no harm."

Nathan Gonzalez is executive editor at Nortia Press, a publisher of fiction and nonfiction titles dealing with global affairs. He is author of two books on the Middle East, Engaging Iran (2007) and The Sunni-Shia Conflict (2009). Twitter: @NortiaPress

* From an interview with this writer, Spring 2007.