The day of reckoning with Iran: Delayed, but still coming


The new U.N. sanctions against Iran may delay its march toward nuclear capability, but it’s unlikely to stop it.

Is there a Plan B for when sanctions don’t work?

I considered this question back in February (read the story: "If sanctions on Iran haven’t worked, why bother again?").

As the day of reckoning with a nuclear Iran fast approaches, advocates in the Jewish community are being forced to confront the question of where to go beyond sanctions. There are no sure answers. Sanctions have not worked so far, and the U.S. administration doesn’t appear close to considering the military option. Even if Israel were to circumvent the United States and strike Iran, it would be hard to wipe out the country’s nuclear facilities, which are thought to include sites that are hidden, underground, scattered and heavily fortified.

Some Jewish groups have begun talking about how to live with a nuclear Iran. Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, the founder and president of The Israel Project, said that even if sanctions couldn’t stop Iran from going nuclear, they still could help deter a nuclear Iran from using its weapons. “The idea that the game is over if Iran has a nuclear device is mistaken,” Mizrahi told JTA. “As long as Iran hasn’t used a nuclear device to shoot anybody or give it to terrorists, we still have to give it a full-court press.”

The New York Times considers this question this week, after passage of the new U.N. sanctions.

There is a Plan B — actually, a Plan B, C, and D — parts of which are already unfolding across the Persian Gulf. The administration does not talk about them much, at least publicly, but they include old-style military containment and an operation known informally at the C.I.A. as the Braindrain Project to lure away Iran’s nuclear talent. By all accounts, Mr. Obama has ramped up a Bush-era covert program to undermine Iran’s nuclear weapons infrastructure, and he has made quiet diplomatic use of Israel’s lurking threat to take military action if diplomacy and pressure fail.

But ask the designers and executors of these programs what they all add up to, and the answer inevitably boils down to “not enough.” Taken together, officials say, they may slow Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapon, which has already run into far greater technical slowdowns than anyone expected. If the pressure builds, Iran might be driven to the negotiating table, which it has avoided since Mr. Obama came to office offering “engagement.”

But even Mr. Obama, in his more-in-sadness-than-anger description on Wednesday of why diplomacy has so far yielded nothing, conceded “we know that the Iranian government will not change its behavior overnight” and went on to describe how instead the sanctions would create “growing costs.”

That assessment sounds like the now-familiar combination of pragmatism and patience that Mr. Obama has tried to make the hallmark of his approach to foreign policy. But in the case of Iran, he is running up against ticking clocks…

Sanctions are a tempting tool for any president. They impose more pain than doing nothing or issuing ritual diplomatic condemnations, and they stop well short of military confrontation. Unfortunately, when it comes to stopping countries from getting the bomb, history suggests they are rarely effective.

The long and short of it? Sanctions may delay the day of reckoning, but one day soon the U.S. president (or an Israeli prime minister) may have to decide: Do we exercise the military option?

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