Cirincione on sanctions — myths, and myths about myths


This Washington Post piece yesterday by Joseph Cirincione, a noted nukes expert, is making the rounds of Iran sanctions skeptics, and for good reason: He lists "Five myths about Iran and the bomb" (the hed doesn’t appear on the story, but it’s here on the Post’s Outlook page) and he’s persuasive.

Persuasive, at least, in dismantling the first two myths he lists: about how close Iran is to building a nuclear weapon; and about the effectiveness of a military strike. (Both claims are central to Israeli government arguments for getting tougher.)

Cirincione says that Iran is one-to-three years away from a "crude nuclear device" and another five from a Hiroshima-sized weapon; that there is no evidence that its leadership has decided to make either of those leaps; and that the measures it agreed to last month as a basis for continued talks with the United States and other major powers will likely draw out that lead time.

A strike on Iran’s nuclear sites  — especially by Israel, which has a fraction of the capability of the United States — would likely only damage Iran’s facilities, and could spark a third regional war, he argues.

Cirincione should have stopped there. (A pithy Op-Ed! More of those please.) His final three "myths" are more like straw men.

3. We can cripple Iran with sanctions.

Sanctions rarely, if ever, work on their own. There is no silver bullet that can coerce Iran into compliance or collapse.

Some mix of sanctions — whether restricting travel, making it harder for Iranian banks to do business, further limiting foreign investment or even denying Iranian citizens basic needs, such as gas — may be necessary if Tehran does not restrain its nuclear program or live up to its pledges. But the key is to couple such pressure with a face-saving way out for the Iranian leadership.

Who, exactly, disagrees with this? The bills in Congress proposing enhanced sanctions attach penalties to behavior — i.e., if Iran complies, the sanctions abate and there are carrots as well. That’s also the view of Dennis Ross, who is running Iran policy in the White House; AIPAC; and the Israeli government.  It’s almost self-evident — what use are sanctions if not to change behavior?

4. A new government in Iran would abandon the nuclear program.

Some believe that an irrational, apocalyptic government now rules Iran and that regime change is the only solution. But there is broad support across Iran’s political spectrum for the right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

Again, who exactly is making this argument? George Bush made Iran’s peaceful use of nuclear energy the signature of his outreach (however little and late it was.) I have heard no one — no one — suggest that a new regime would abandon its peaceful nuclear program. I have heard off the record talk that nuclear weapons under a less extreme regime would be tolerable — but this implies the reverse of Cirincione’s straw man; those advocating sanctions are contemplating acommodation of a weaponized Iran, but under a different leadership.

5. Iran is the main nuclear threat in the Middle East.

The real threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program is that other states in the region feel they must match it. The race has already begun.

While Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons has not spurred other countries in the area to develop their own, over the past three years a dozen states in the Middle East, including Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Libya (again), have begun civilian nuclear programs.

This is the oddest of straw men; the prospect of a nuclear arms race is precisely what exercises sanctions advocates. They regard Iran as the main nuclear threat in the Middle East — but only for the time being.

Relatedly, a Washington Post-ABC poll shows "both ends of the ideological spectrum back economic sanctions to discourage Iran’s development of nuclear weapons," according to the Post.

Also in the Post, David Ignatius uncovered a story in Nucleonics Week that he believes suggests that Iran is not capable for now of enriching its uranium beyond low grades — its current process is bedeviled by impurities —  which lends further credibility to the notion that Iran is further away from a bomb than the Israelis believe.

Hold on, Arms Control Wonk says: Iran is capable of reaching "any level they want, but if a certain level of impurities remains in the product, that makes the process more laborious." So it slows things down — but, perhaps, not by much, if they’re dedicated to the proposition of achieving weapon class uranium.

Recommended from JTA