Sanctions may not stop Iran’s nuclear programme, but could spark a revolt against the mullahs. Bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities will only strengthen the mullahs . Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has repeatedly threatened to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, saying that country is close to producing a nuclear bomb. The US has opposed bombing, and imposed stiff economic sanctions along with the European Union, over and above milder UN sanctions.
Prominent Israelis, including President Shimon Peres, ex-army chief Ashkenazi and former Shin Bet chief Yuval Dishkin have opposed unilaterally bombing Iran. This strategy is risky, and can succeed only if the US is a full-fledged partner.
Possibly the most notable dissenter is Meir Dagan, former Mossad chief. He has many reasons for dissent. The most interesting is that an Israeli strike will create a patriotic surge in Iran that saves the tottering regime of the mullahs from falling.
Dagan is right in sensing a possible revolt. I was stunned, when visiting Iran in 2010, at the extent of popular anger against the government. Taxi drivers and tourist guides openly castigated Prime Minister Ahmedinejad and even the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khameni. The rigging of the 2009 election had sparked public outrage and rioting, causing 36 deaths.
The mullahs were able to suppress these riots and stay in power. The “bazaaris,” middle-class agitators including shopkeepers, that had openly defied the Shah in 1978 were not as united against the mullahs in 2009.
But today, the Iranian bazaar is in revolt, thanks to runaway inflation and distress caused by sanctions. Teheran’s currency markets have been closed by security forces after demonstrations by traders. Other merchants want to shut down in sympathy with currency traders, but the forces have threatened them with eviction if they do so.
Since January 2012, the Iranian rial has more than halved in value against the dollar. Sanctions on banks have cut off billions in remittances that were received from overseas relatives. Oil exports have shrunk from 2.5 million barrels per day to barely one million. Unemployment and inflation are spiralling. A country once overflowing with petro-dollars now has a currency black market. The mullahs control the armed forces and internal security. Religious trusts (called bonyads) own major Iranian corporations, and are controlled directly by the Supreme Leader. The Revolutionary Guards are not just a military force but also an economic colossus. Corruption and personal aggrandisement is rife in these organisations, and Iranians are angry at this loot.
These organisations have tentacles that give the mullahs awesome control over the economy. They have whipped up some solidarity in the face of threats from Israel and the US, and that has psychologically assuaged the travails arising from sanctions. So, it is not certain that the ruling theocracy will collapse. Yet the odds of this happening will keep improving with time as sanctions bite.
The history of economic sanctions is far from compelling. Often they have had no impact on targeted leaders like Saddam Hussein. Often they have penalised suffering citizens without budging oppressive leaders. But economic sanctions did succeed in bringing about regime change in white Rhodesia and South Africa, though it took a long time.
Iran’s official position is that it has no desire to build a nuclear bomb, and that creating a weapon of mass destruction would be unIslamic. As a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, it is entitled to enrich uranium to generate electricity, or for medical and research purposes. But, nobody believes that Iran will limit enrichment to producing power-grade fuel, and not further to weapons-grade uranium. Many Iranians feel they have as much right to a nuclear bomb as Israel.
Israel argues that Iran’s mullahs are ideologues who are too irrational to be deterred by Israel’s own nukes, and will bomb Israel to extinction. This argument is rubbish. Iran is no more likely to misuse nuclear arms than the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Iran’s leaders may be theocrats but so too – admittedly to a lesser degree – are Israel’s. Iran’s mullahs have many vices, yet are no worse and no less rational than Soviet apparatchiks.
Apart from Israel, Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE hate the idea of Shia Iran becoming a nuclear power. But this does not constitute a moral case for bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities. The Sunni countries also hate Israel’s nukes, and that has never been cited as a moral reason to bomb Israel’s facilities.
The case for imposing economic sanctions to stop Iran from going nuclear is somewhat stronger. Such sanctions were also levied on India and Pakistan after their nuclear explosions in 1998. But these turned out to be fairly brief.
The real justification for economic sanctions against Iran is not that these will stop the country from going nuclear. It is that they will, in time, help produce a Persian Spring, by creating conditions for Iranians to overthrow the mullahs and usher in genuine democracy.
The outcome of the Arab Spring is still uncertain. It might lead to the development of genuine democracy, but might also mean a drift into Islamic theocracy. That is why the world needs a Persian Spring. This will be decisively anti- mullah.
(Afterthought: “The bad news is Iran is capable of making a nuclear bomb. The good news is they have to drop it from a camel.” – David Letterman, American TV host)