Coercive Sanctions and Military Threats Push Iran Closer to the Nuclear Threshold

Iran’s nuclear activities are being portrayed in an alarmist and irrational way in the United States, and political rhetoric only pushes Iran closer to creating a nuclear weapon, said David Cortright, Director of Policy Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and an expert on nuclear dangers and sanctions.

The international community needs to do everything possible to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons capability, said Mr. Cortright in a phone interview with the Global Observatory, cautioning that “…it’s a very dangerous game, because the very act of threatening military action against Iran is likely to eventually motivate them to go ahead and build the bomb.”

Thirty years of a coercive American sanctions policy against Iran has not made an impact, and Iranian leaders are not likely to concede to American demands in the future. According to Mr. Cortright, sanctions can be an effective tool of international diplomacy, but they must be targeted and utilized as part of a bargaining strategy. The US has to be willing to put sanctions on the bargaining table while refraining from military threats against Iran. Countries build nuclear weapons because they feel insecure, and the longer the US pursues a coercive approach, the more likely it is that the regime will feel sufficiently pressured to cross the line toward nuclear production. 

“For us to be pursuing this unwise and counterproductive policy toward Iran is very dangerous and ultimately will be contrary to our own security interests,” said Mr. Cortright, emphasizing additional grave concerns for regional security with armed conflict already raging at a horrific rate in Syria. If Iran moves toward building nuclear weapons, other countries in the region may follow suit, causing a serious blow to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and marking a grave setback to international efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. 

A bargain that offers Iran reduced or suspended sanctions in exchange for firm guarantees from the Iranian government of the peaceful nature of the nuclear program could resolve the crisis. A diplomatic, negotiated settlement is the formula for long-term nonproliferation that bolsters regional and international security.

The interview was conducted by Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, Visiting Fellow at the International Peace Institute. 

Listen to the interview (or download mp3):


Andrea Ó Súilleabháin (AOS): Our guest today in the Global Observatory is David Cortright, Director of Policy Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and Chair of the Board of the Fourth Freedom Forum, which focuses on strategic counterterrorism, sanctions and security, and reducing nuclear dangers. David is a teacher, scholar, and activist with a long history of public advocacy for disarmament and the prevention of war. David, thank you for joining us over the phone today in the Global Observatory.

In 2012, you said, “There is no evidence that Iran has a nuclear weapon,” or that it is taking steps to build a bomb. The recent worldwide threat assessment of the US intelligence community asserts that Iran’s nuclear capability is a reality, but whether weapons are pursued comes down to political choice and cost-benefit analysis. David, what is your current assessment of Iran’s nuclear activity?

David Cortright (DC): It’s quite clear that they have a substantial nuclear production capacity, but also clear that no evidence exists that they have turned that into a nuclear weapon. The US intelligence agencies, as you indicate, have been assessing every year for the last several years that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons capability and that it made a decision several years ago to desist from any further activities in that direction.

We also have the several-times-a-year reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency. Their reports also say that we cannot state whether Iran has a nuclear weapon or not. We have no such evidence. We can’t state the positive, but we can’t state the negative. We really have no evidence to suggest that they are actually in possession of a nuclear weapon, and a lot of evidence that they have built up this capacity. But actual creation of a weapon—they don’t have that yet.

AOS: Given that lack of evidence, David, I’m interested in your opinion on what’s fueling the current political rhetoric on Iran inside the US. Most recently, just two days ago while touring Jerusalem, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that an arms deal between the US and Israel sends “another very clear signal” to Iran that the military option remains on the table. How does the US-Israel alliance affect the political rhetoric on Iran, in the US and abroad? 

DC: On the one hand, it’s a serious concern. If Iran were to get the bomb, that would be a significant deterioration of security throughout that region and could prompt Israel to take military action, and might also motivate some other states in the region to develop nuclear weapons. That possibility of Iran having a bomb is dire, and it’s something to be very concerned about. 

But the way in which it’s being portrayed in such an alarmist fashion, it seems to me, is irrational, and reflects two things: One: the profound sense of hostility that the United States has had since the revolution of 1979, but especially since the hostage crisis. This is portrayed well in the film “Argo,” which actually goes back to the fifties when the US overthrew an elected government, and the Shah of Iran came in, and that long history where we have been manipulating their country and supporting dictators, when they had a revolution and the Islamist power came—we’ve been hostile to it for now over 30 years with sanctions. The depth of our hostility is reflected by the fact that we actually sided with Saddam Hussein in the war between Iraq and Iran in the 1980s, even though Saddam Hussein was the offender, the one who started the war, the aggressor in attacking Iran. And yet we sided with Iraq because of our fear—I would say it’s almost a pathological fear—of Iran. That’s one big factor.

The other is that this is a way of currying favor with Israel and with the right-wing Israeli lobby in the US—those who feel that the United States should be doing even more to support Israel in its policies toward Iran. It’s very convenient politically in the United States to beat up on Iran. It’s a very convenient enemy, if you will; it’s right out of central casting, if you’re looking for an enemy and for a way to curry favor with Israeli public opinion. But it’s a very dangerous game, because the very act of threatening military action against Iran is likely to eventually motivate them to go ahead and build the bomb. Why do countries build nuclear weapons? Because they feel insecure. We’re making Iran feel more insecure by doubling down on sanctions and by continuing to issue these military threats. It’s a very dangerous game, and if it’s played out to its end, it’s likely to be counterproductive and result in the possibility of a disastrous armed conflict in the region.

AOS: I’d like to focus in on what you’ve mentioned about sanctions. For decades, you’ve argued that sanctions-based diplomacy is the formula for resolving the nuclear standoff with Iran. Yet you’ve also declared that three decades of US sanctions have not had the slightest effect. Why are the US sanctions ineffective? And do the UN sanctions have a better chance of achieving long-term resolution?

DC: Sanctions are potentially an effective tool of international diplomacy, but that means you have to be willing to bargain with them. Professor George Lopez and I have written about this in our view of a bargaining theory of sanctions. With Iran, for example, it’s clear that the sanctions are a strong coercive presence. They are having an impact on the Iranian economy. That suggests that they have certainly gotten the attention of the regime, and if we could begin to bargain—for example, to say, “We will reduce the sanctions, we will offer to suspend and lift the sanctions entirely, if we can get from the Iranian government firm pledges and guarantees of the peaceful nature of their nuclear program”—that’s the formula that could resolve this crisis. But in order for that to happen, we have to be willing to put the sanctions on the table as a bargaining chip, and we also have to be willing to refrain from these military threats and indeed pull back some of the military pressure that we are applying against Iran. 

So that’s what sanctions should be used for, but in the US experience, now going back since the time of the hostage crisis and continuously since then, we’ve had US sanctions on Iran that seem to be primarily motivated toward punishment, toward trying to squeeze the population, to cause pain in the Iranian economy in the naïve belief that somehow this will translate into willingness on the part of the Iranian leadership to concede and cave into American demand. It’s never going to happen! It hasn’t happened in the thirty years that we’ve been trying this, and there’s no chance it’ll happen in the future.

UN sanctions are more limited. They are targeted sanctions. They’re not directed at the people. They’re not harming the overall economy. They’re aimed at approximately one hundred designated individuals and entities, which have been identified with Iran’s nuclear program and with its weapons trafficking activities. Those pressures are directed against those who are responsible for activities that the international community objects to. Those measures could be used in the bargaining as well, and again, offered to suspend and remove these sanctions in exchange for firm guarantees that the Iranian program is peaceful in nature. 

AOS: I want to move beyond US policy to ask you about the effects of Iranian nuclear ambition across the Middle East, where countries like Saudi Arabia are also concerned about a nuclear Iran. Could Iran’s nuclear ambition, even toward energy alone, trigger a nuclear rush in the region? What would this mean for the nonproliferation treaty?

DC: It’s a good question. I don’t think that Iran’s nuclear production program per se, and its development of enrichment capacity, would trigger a rush toward further nuclear power development or nuclear weapons development in the region. There are some states that have some nuclear capabilities, others that don’t. And those choices are made by states primarily on the basis of what’s financially viable, what’s the best way to generate electricity for their economic development. So, I don’t think it’s a concern in terms of the nuclear program generally. 

If they were to move toward actually building a bomb, then it’s a whole different story. Saudi Arabia has given signals that it might well move beyond its current civilian program to require nuclear weapons capability. If that were to occur, maybe other states in the region would do so as well. It’s a real danger, and we need to do everything possible to prevent Iran from going toward actual nuclear weapons capability. If Iran were to go in that direction, and if Saudi Arabia and some other countries followed suit, it would be a very serious blow to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, to the NPT regime generally, and would be a grave setback to the generally positive efforts that have been made internationally to try to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.

AOS: Finally, I want to turn to the perspective inside Iran. In what has become known as the “fatwa against nuclear weapons,” Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has long maintained that the atomic bomb is prohibited under Islamic law. In your opinion, what is the role of religion in the politics surrounding Iran’s nuclear program?

DC: Religion generally has a huge role to play in Iranian politics. I had the chance to visit Iran a few years ago and spent several weeks there. And it’s clear that the country is deeply religious. I went to Qom, the holy city, and spoke with people who are studying in seminary. While in the urban areas of Iran, especially Tehran, people are fairly secular and middle class, out in the countryside it’s very conservative and religious influence is very strong. 

In political realism, you don’t take intentions or statements as the basis for policy. You take facts on the ground, actual capabilities. But in the case of a country like Iran, I do think, given its religious character, the very fact that it is describing itself as an Islamic state—these sorts of edicts and fatwas from the top religious leaders matter, they have big influence. Again, I wouldn’t take it as a sole guarantee, that we could take it to the bank, so to speak, on security—no. But it is important. It’s a positive sign, it seems to me, that the political leadership, which is embodied in the supreme leader and these other ayatollahs, has stated over and over again that they do not intend to build nuclear weapons, and that makes sense.  

On the other hand, they’re building up the nuclear capacity, but again, that makes sense, too. Essentially, what they’re doing is trying to get a hedge capacity. They want to have the capability of developing nuclear weapons should they feel sufficiently insecure. But I think for now, they are serious about not taking that further step, not going over the line toward actual nuclear weapons capability. 

To me, this adds further weight to the point that I’m making that we should try to negotiate a solution here. To pursue a continuous confrontational approach, to continue with military threats, to continue with these very severe sanctions that are now hurting the ordinary people and strangling the economy of Iran—this whole coercive policy of pressure is not going to work. This kind of regime will not cave in to external pressure. Instead, we need to figure out a diplomatic bargain. The longer we pursue this coercive approach and the more we make threats, the more likely it is at some point that the regime will feel sufficiently pressured to take that fateful step and go over the line towards nuclear production. It’s a very serious matter. 

It’s a grave concern for international security, especially for regional security there, and especially with the Syrian war already raging at such a horrific rate. With that sectarian Shia-Sunni split now being exacerbated across the region, to take a risk of possible military action against Iran would be insane and would further inflame a region that’s already suffering from horrific armed conflict. There’s a lot at stake here. For us to be pursuing this unwise and counterproductive policy toward Iran is very dangerous and ultimately will be contrary to our own security interests and also to the security interests of Israel and our other allies in that region.

AOS: David Cortright, thank you for speaking with us and sharing your insights today in the Global Observatory.