A man walks past a banner depicting Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. (Morteza Nikoubazl/ Courtesy Reuters)
The nuclear question is at the center of most countries' Iran policies. China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States have all engaged in negotiations to convince Tehran to give up its presumed quest for the bomb. Now, with talks sputtering, Western powers have implemented increasingly tough sanctions, including the European Union's recent embargo on Iranian oil, in the hope of compelling the regime to reverse course.
Yet history suggests, and even many sanctions advocates agree, that sanctions will not compel Iran's leaders to scrap their nuclear program. In fact, from Fidel Castro's Cuba to Saddam Hussein's Iraq, hostile countries have rarely changed policy in response to Western embargoes. Some sanctions advocates counter that sanctions did work to get Chile to abandon communism, South Africa to end apartheid, and Libya to give up its nuclear program. But the Chilean and South African governments were not hostile -- they were pro-Western, and thus more amenable to the West's demands. And Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi ended his nuclear pursuit only after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, fearing that he would suffer the same fate as Saddam Hussein.
Iran, which is clearly hostile and which watched what just happened to a disarmed Libya, will not back down. Some therefore see sanctions as only a prelude to military action -- by Israel, the United States, or both. In other words, current Iran strategy boils down to an eventual choice between appeasement and attack. Neither outcome is attractive. However, if the United States and its allies broadened their perspective and paid attention not merely to Iran's nuclear program but also to the Islamic Republic's larger assault on the West, they would see that a third and better option exists: supporting a democratic revolution in Iran.
Obsession with the nuclear question has obscured the fact that, since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran has waged a low-level war on the United States.
- Full website and iPad access
- Magazine issues
- New! Books from the Foreign Affairs Anthology Series