The Folly of Sanctions on Iran
World powers are scrambling to find some magic formula that will ratchet back rising tensions over Iran's nuclear weapons program. United Nations (U.N.) International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) secretary-general Yukiya Amano flew to Tehran on Sunday, 20 May 2012, for last-minute talks with Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili in advance of the P-5 + 1 talks scheduled to begin in Baghdad on Wednesday, 23 May 2012.
His trip follows by several days a remarkable op-ed, authored by a distinguished group of Western leadership figures, which appeared in the Wall Street Journal on 16 May 2012. Meir Dagan, August Hanning, and R. James Woolsey are former heads of the intelligence services of Israel, Germany, and the U.S., respectively; Gen. Charles Guthrie is a former chief of staff of the British armed forces, Ms. Kristen Silverberg is a former U.S. ambassador to the EU, and Mr. Mark D. Wallace is a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. for management and reform. These people have joined together in a new initiative of the U.S.-based group United Against Nuclear Iran and the U.K.-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue. The urgent purpose that animates all of them -- Secretary General Amano, the P-5 + 1, and this group -- is to persuade Iran's leadership to abandon its quest for a deliverable nuclear weapon before Israel, the U.S., or some combination of world powers decides that a military strike against Iran is the only way to halt its nuclear weapons program.
What is so striking about all of these well-meaning efforts is their apparent foundation on the conviction that the Iranian leadership makes cost-benefit calculations the way Westerners do. Collectively, these authors are world leaders who represent some of the finest minds and real-world experience of their generation. And yet, their conviction that "[i]t is still in Iran's interest to change course and address international concerns regarding possible military aspects of its nuclear program" betrays a disturbing tendency to presume that the Iranian regime somehow shares with them a common perspective about the objectives of governance and the conduct of foreign affairs. This is mirror-imaging of the most dangerous kind.
Because the stringent sanctions imposed on Iran by the international community demonstrably "are having a tangible impact" and causing serious damage to the Iranian economy, judgments are made that, at some point, the Iranian leadership will conclude that it is either unable or unwilling to continue its drive for a deliverable nuclear weapons capability. While measures such as recommend by the WSJ op-ed team -- denial of access to the international banking system, shipping, and insurance coverage -- indeed could bring the Iranian economy to its knees if globally enforced, it is also just as likely that anticipation of such increasingly stringent measures would galvanize the Iranian regime to accelerate completion of its nuclear weapons program.
This is because a number of unsustainable assumptions underlie the sanctions plan. First and foremost is a failure to understand the ideological motivation that drives Iran's current leaders, from the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, himself to the commanders of the Iranian military forces, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and its affiliated Qods Force, and the most influential clerics identified with Khomeini's revolution, such as chairman of the Expediency Council, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Even though traditional Twelver Shi'ite doctrine holds that full-on jihad has been illegitimate since the Greater Occultation cut off communications with the Twelfth Imam (the Shi'ite Mahdi) in the 10th century and that pious Shi'a neither can nor should do anything to force Allah's hand (to send back the Mahdi or usher in the End Times scenario), it is precisely because Khomeini and his successors broke ranks in some ways with the historical, traditional Shi'a Islam -- but reverted to it in others -- that the current Tehran regime's quest for the bomb is so threatening. Realization that Iran is working on a potentially devastating pre-emptive capability to deliver perhaps just one nuclear bomb of the Super-EMP variety should lend the utmost urgency to our focus on this ideology.
By institutionalizing jihad in the 1989 Iranian constitution as a policy of state to spread the Khomeini revolution, and designating the IRGC/Qods Force and a strategy of "striking terror into the hearts of the enemy" (Q 8:60) as the means to accomplish that, Tehran's mullahs clearly challenge traditional Twelver doctrine in a number of ways. For example, even as Khomeini cracked down on the Hojatieh Society (established in the 1950s to counter Bahá'í beliefs) because its members presumed to expedite the return of the Twelfth Imam, he also permitted his own followers to bestow on him the title of "Imam," which would have been blasphemous for anyone else (although Khomeini never claimed actually to be the Twelfth Imam). In fact, Khomeini's ideology more accurately may be described as an extrapolation of traditional Shi'ite thought about the necessity of an all-powerful "Guardian Jurist" to guide Shi'a society in the period of waiting for the return of the Mahdi; but in arguing for an activist, frankly jihadist Imamate in the interim, he allowed the Shi'ite clergy significantly to stretch earlier bounds of theological inquiry and scholarship.
In other ways, Khomeini's personification of the all-powerful Guardian Jurist hearkens back in time, for example, to the 16th-century figure of Muhammad al-Baqir Majlesi, who was one of the most powerful and influential Shi'a clerics of all time. In his position as Sheikh al-Islam (Islamic Leader of the Land), a title given him by the Safavid ruler Sultan Husayn, al-Baqir was tasked with imposing Shi'a Islam on a Persian population theretofore Sunni. Certainly, Khomeini's visceral Jew-hatred echoes that of his forbear. Under the rule of Khomeini's successor as supreme leader, the Ayatollah Khamenei, though, it has been but a short ideological leap from "preparation" for the imminent return of the Mahdi to Ahmadinejad's fervent formulation of "let my words and deeds hasten the return of the 12th Imam." The Iranian president's apparent fixation on his own role as a central figure in the Mahdi narrative and quarrels about this with Khamenei, however, should not obscure the very real devotion to that same narrative by the supreme leader, who sees himself as the mythical "Khurasani Sayyed," foretold in the Shi'a ahadith as the leader who prepares the way for the 12th Imam.
One of the most revealing glimpses the West has seen of this deeply internal Iranian worldview came to light by way of Reza Kahlili, the pseudonymous former IRGC Pasdar and CIA recruited agent, who obtained a copy of a disturbing Iranian video whose title translates as "The Coming is Upon Us." Produced by Ahmadinejad's office and screened for the supreme leader to apparent acclaim followed by wide distribution among the ranks of the IRGC, this film lays out the conviction of Iran's current leadership that the 12th Imam will return during their tenure in office and that they will play a central role in the cataclysmic events attendant to his reappearance on earth.
This brings us back to the unsustainable assumptions upon which current sanctions strategies appear to be based. Obviously, the current Iranian regime and a significant percentage of its power centers operate at least to some extent under a set of ideological beliefs all too often dismissed out of hand by "rational" Westerners, whose confidence that they can understand and even influence the behavior of these adversaries in ways that will deter them from acts hostile to U.S., Western, and international interests may be disastrously misplaced. Another unsustainable assumption about the existence of somehow "universal" definitions of national-level reason and rationality that inevitably must lead to a rejection of violent solutions fails to take into account how doctrinally inspired mindsets deliberately can implement policy that appears to all outside the inner circle militarily impossible or even knowingly suicidal (ideologically driven martyrdom).
None of this is to assert that the current Iranian regime is definitely, without any doubt, a "suicide bomber in macrocosm," as Louis Rene Beres, professor of political science and international law at Purdue University, would put it. It is to acknowledge, however, that irrationality and barbarism quite routinely overwhelm more idyllic visions of human nature. Jihadis around the world almost daily choose to place their individual human mortality on the sacrificial altar to a deity they believe promises in return both personal immortality in Paradise and the survival and triumph of Islam on earth. Not confined to the totalitarian paradigm of Islamic metaphysical belief, apparent irrationality occurs in the secular but equally totalitarian world, too: during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, Cuban dictator Fidel Castro actually urged Moscow to initiate nuclear war with the U.S. rather than give in to President Kennedy's demands to remove its missiles, in the full knowledge that retaliatory strikes from the U.S. would obliterate Cuba.
Difficult as it may be for those who see themselves as enlightened thinkers of the 21st century to accept that a totalitarian dictatorship, whether of the Islamic or secular variety, may be willing to sacrifice not just its own people (economically or existentially), but its own very existence, in the quest for an ideological higher value, when dealing with this Iranian regime, it is imperative that we do so. Supposing that Khamenei or his Islamic revolutionary cohorts can be convinced by any means to abandon the quest for what has been the sine qua non of their 33-year reign of power -- the acquisition of deployed nuclear weapons with which to impose their will upon and perhaps annihilate their ideological enemies -- is not realistic. While increasingly harsh economic sanctions may well convince the mullahs that their window of opportunity to complete Iran's nuclear weapons program is closing rapidly, it does not follow that such a realization would convince them to relinquish the quest. Quite to the contrary, that realization would more than likely spur them to accelerate the program with every resource at their disposal to achieve what they seek before it gets even more difficult. Additionally, it must be noted that the regime's firm belief in its own place in the Shi'ite eschatology of the 12th Imam also comes with temporal boundaries. Ahmadinejad's term of office ends in 2013.
The bottom line is this: the Iranian regime cannot, by any means, be induced to give up its intent and motivation to "get the bomb." Intent cannot be changed. But the regime can and should be.
 Beres, Professor Louis Rene, "AFTER OSAMA BIN LADEN: ASSASSINATION, TERRORISM, WAR, AND INTERNATIONAL LAW," March 2012. Awaiting publication.