It’s Time to Step up Diplomacy with Iran

Things are heating up for Iran. The international community, responding to doubts over the intentions of the Iranian nuclear program, has passed three sanctions packages over the past three weeks.

The United Nations Security Council began the push by passing a fourth round of sanctions against Iran, improving upon previous sanctions resolutions by limiting weapons shipments, tightening restrictions on shipping companies that work as front companies for illicit nuclear trade, and freezing the assets of specific individuals and entities linked to prohibited activity.

The European Union followed suit shortly thereafter by passing its own sanctions package, which targeted the oil and gas industries as well as “dual-use” technologies, or industrial items that have benign uses but that are also components of a nuclear weapons program.

The United States entered the fray as well, with the Treasury Department releasing a new list of entities and individuals linked to proliferation activities in Iran that were to have their financial assets frozen. The U.S. Congress has just finalized its own sanctions package, which, like the EU program, targets the oil and gas industries.

While the flurry of activity surrounding sanctions on Iran’s energy, financial, and transportation industries by the international community indicates a desire to dedicate serious resources and effort into solving the international stalemate over the Iranian nuclear program, the harsh truth of the situation is that sanctions are an imperfect and temporary way to address the threat of nuclear weaponization in Iran.

Take, for starters, the fact that this is the fourth time that the United Nations has passed sanctions resolutions against Iran. If there’s any type of group that has the know-how to not only avoid but also capitalize off of sanctions, it is the shady groups like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL) that are behind the Iranian regime’s illicit nuclear program.

New Paint Jobs

The list of entities to be sanctioned that represents the total sum effort of the UN Security Council, the EU, and the United States includes shell fronts and limited liability companies that oftentimes have the same board members, funders, and assets as companies that were sanctioned in previous drafts but have refashioned themselves to stay in operation. IRISL literally (and infamously) has repainted and renamed some of their fleet of cargo ships in order to bypass previous iterations of sanctions.

So if sanctions only work until the targeted entities and individuals figure out a new way to work around the system and tap into or establish alternative black markets, then how must the international community neutralize Iran’s nuclear weapon ambitions?

A military strike against facilities in Iran should by no means by considered. First, there’s the basic fact that our troops are already stretched thin in engagements abroad in Iraq and Afghanistan. Second, intervention against Iran would destabilize already tense geopolitical situations in the Middle East and Central Asia.

More importantly, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said recently that military strikes against Iran would have “unintended consequences” such as prolonging and entrenching the Ahmadinejad regime, undermining the pro-democracy opposition movement, and would only delay — but not prevent — Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon if it defies the international community and pursue such a path.

The last, best hope of the international community is intense, concerted, high-level diplomatic engagement with Iran, similar to the Six Party Talks that were initiated after North Korea tested a nuclear weapon and left the community borne of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. International leaders — from regional countries as well as the United States, Russia, and China — should make it clear to Iran that there are economic benefits that would come along with cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and allowing full access of their nuclear facilities to inspectors. Participating negotiators should join the discussions willing to offer Iran concrete advantages to cooperation.

While the Six Party Talks with North Korea began once it was too late and the county has already entrenched itself on a path of non-cooperation, the situation with Iran is different. Iran is still a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and has agreed in principle to not develop nuclear weapons. Now, in the wake of sanctions, is the perfect time for international community leaders to reach out and tell Iran that there is another option.

High-level diplomatic engagement would benefit both the international community and Iran itself, thwarting a dangerous and destabilizing nuclear weapons program while also providing opportunities for economic growth and investment. Faced with imperfect sanctions and abhorrent military options, high-level diplomatic engagement is the only route to such an outcome.

Mary Slosson is a Herbert Scoville Peace Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor.