New U.S., Canadian and European economic sanctions against Iran have taken effect over the last eight days, aimed at finally persuading Iran to give up its quest for nuclear weapons.
But Iran’s government has typically responded with defiant bluster. Reprising a tired theme, Iran threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, a crucial conduit for the Mideast oil trade.
The United States responded by increasing its military presence in and near the Persian Gulf. Certainly America’s armed forces appear quite capable of handling any Iranian challenge, despite its warnings last week that U.S. ships are “sitting ducks” in the gulf.
Does all of this sound familiar?
It should. The U.S. and its allies have been performing this fandango of futility with the Iranians for years now: Fruitless negotiations lead to tighter economic sanctions, which lead to both sides issuing warnings about possible armed action, which leads back to futile negotiations.
All the while, Iran persists in its absurd claims of seeking only peaceful power generation through a program now producing the material required for nuclear weapons.
Over the last three months, Iran has managed to buy more time for that mission during failed talks in Istanbul (April), Baghdad (May) and Moscow (June) with the “P5 Plus 1” — the five members of the United Nations Security Council(U.S., Britain, Russia, China, France) plus Germany. Last week, low-level talks in Turkey produced no progress.
So what’s next? More nuclear talks? More tough talk?
According to The New York Times, a senior Obama administration official said again last week: “When the president says there are other options on the table beyond negotiations, he means it.”
But though President Barack Obama has assured Israel that he won’t permit Iran to get nuclear arms, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly stressed that his nation won’t wait for help — or permission — to take military action of its own if it concludes that Iran’s about to become a nuclear power.
There is some reassurance in the U.S. military buildup in the gulf — and in this assertion in the Times from a senior Defense Department official: “The message to Iran is, ‘Don’t even think about it.’ Don’t even think about closing the strait. We’ll clear the mines. Don’t even think about sending your fast boats out to harass our vessels or commercial shipping. We’ll put them on the bottom of the gulf.”
But what if the zealots who run Iran aren’t really thinking about closing the strait or harassing U.S. vessels and commercial shipping? What if they’re just thinking about playing for more time?
What if Russia and China continue to obstruct international efforts to maximize pressure on Iran?
The stricter sanctions now in force are worth a try. The European Union’s ban on buying oil from Iran should inflict a particularly severe blow on its economy.
But the longer it takes to deter Iran from its nuclear ambitions, the closer it will come to realizing them.
And the longer it takes to form a united — and fully effective — international front against the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, the greater the risk that it will become a reality.