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On Thursday, Iran will mark Revolution Day, its annual commemoration of the monarchy’s end. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has promised to use the day to “punch” and “stun” the West, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced the Islamic Republic will increase uranium enrichment.
Iranian defiance is not new, but its vitriol after President Barack Obama’s attempts to reconcile has forced the White House to reassess its policy. On Tuesday, Obama promised a “significant regimen of sanctions” to underline Iran’s isolation.
Which raises the question: What will stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons?
Sanctions alone won’t. The Obama administration values the legitimacy of multilateral sanctions and will concentrate on achieving United Nations consensus. But the Bush administration did this three times, and the results were more symbolic than real–winning headlines while failing to stop enrichment.
Last month, Congress empowered the White House to impose gas sanctions on Iran, which must import 40 percent of its gasoline needs. If implemented, these would pressure Tehran by making life miserable for Iranians, but not enough to force change. More Revolutionary Guardsmen serve as ministers, parliamentarians and governors in the Islamic Republic than ever before. Citizens’ complaints mean little to these veterans, who spent their formative years in far worse conditions on the frontlines of the Iran-Iraq war. Enforcement is also risky, as an Iranian attempt to run a U.S. Navy blockade would mean war.
Some unilateral sanctions could be effective. The U.S. Patriot Act lets Obama designate Iran’s central bank as guilty of deceptive financial practices, which in effect would remove Iranian banks from the international financial stage. Unlike unilateral trade sanctions, neither Russia nor China could step in to fill the gap, since such a designation would transfer liability to any institution working with the sanctioned bank. But even this isolation wouldn’t necessarily convince Tehran to abandon its nuclear program. After all, North Korea developed a more effective nuclear and ballistic missile capability with less.
Military strikes could delay Iran’s nuclear program, but at tremendous cost in terms of blood and treasure. They would also undermine Iranian civil society as Iranians, no matter how antagonistic they are toward their current regime, rally around the flag when attacked.
Given all this, perhaps it’s time to think outside the box.
The problem in Iran is not so much the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions, but rather an ideology that makes a potential Iranian nuclear bomb a threat. Diplomats and journalists may speak of “Iran’s bomb,” but it would be more accurate to call it “the Revolutionary Guard’s bomb,” for it is the Islamic Republic’s most radical elements who would maintain command and control. The Iranian people–many of whom protest against their government regularly–are far more moderate.
To defuse risk, then, the question becomes how to make the Iranian regime more accountable to its people. Elections are not enough. Putting aside the blatant fraud that saw Ahmadinejad win a second term, sovereignty in the Islamic Republic comes from God through the Supreme Leader, not from the people.
Here, Iran’s trade union movement provides an answer. The Bush administration missed a “Gdansk moment” in 2005 when Tehran bus driver Mansour Osanlou, the Iranian equivalent of Poland’s Lech Walesa, organized the Islamic Republic’s first independent trade union. Sugar processors in southwestern Iran soon followed suit.
If bus drivers and factory workers can beat the regime at a local level, imagine the pressures Tehran would face from a dozen more trade unions? If unions can force the regime to pay eight months’ worth of back salaries or invest in pension schemes, then the government might not have the funds to build centrifuges and missiles.
Here, Obama, his union allies and Europe’s Social Democrats have an opportunity to lead by sponsoring strike funds and assisting organizers.
Time may be short, and there’s no guarantee this would work to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power. But it would be irresponsible not to try.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at AEI.
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