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With the ransacking of the British embassy in Tehran, the West has further shrunk its repository of policy options, leaving sanctions as the policy tool of choice. However, while sanctions may slow Iran's forays into the nuclear field, they are unlikely to divert their course entirely.

The International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) November report on Iran suggested that the Iranian regime is narrowing the gap in time until it could produce a nuclear weapon, should it decide to do so. Urgent calls to international action have since used the report's findings as substantiation. Despite acknowledgment of the document's 'serious concerns' by major western nations, international coordination of a response remains a daunting challenge.

The application of separate sanctions regimes by the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada, downgrading of relations with the London, and the subsequent protests against the British Embassy in Tehran, have each compounded the difficulty in formulating a common approach. The events in the wake of the IAEA report, painted unconvincingly by the Iranians as a bilateral disagreement with the UK, continue to compel other governments, including the European Union, to articulate a rapid response. However, in its rush to condemn recent Iranian actions - both as part of, and outside of its nuclear programme - and to demonstrate its resolve to escalate if necessary, the international community has shrunk its repository of policy options. This has left financial and energy sanctions as the tool of choice for many western governments - a mechanism perhaps able to slow, but unlikely to divert the apparent Iranian pursuit of, at minimum, a breakout capability.

'Serious Concerns'

The month's outset saw the publication of the IAEA Director General's report on Iran's nuclear activities. The detailed intelligence presented in the report portrayed a very real risk of Iranian attainment of 'breakout capability' - or the ability to rapidly adapt or reorganise knowledge, infrastructure, and materiel to allow for weaponisation to be undertaken.[1]

Director General Yukiya Amano's findings were subsequently reviewed by the IAEA Board of Governors. As a result of objections by Russia and China - who disagree with western nations on the appropriateness of sanctions - the issue was not referred to the UN Security Council for further deliberation. Instead, a statement of condemnation was approved by the Board, calling for urgent transparency and cooperation by Iran. Despite its firm tone, the statement did little to alleviate pressure on western governments to respond in a meaningful way to the recently publicised nuclear efforts of Tehran.

Frustrated with the lack of consensus on the Board of Governors, several nations swiftly articulated individual policies. The United States, United Kingdom, and Canada each adopted additional, albeit different, layers of sanctions on 21 November 2011. UK sanctions targeted the Iranian financial system, including its central bank, effectively cutting ties between the banking sectors of the two nations.[2] Shortly thereafter, the 27 members of the European Union imposed sanctions on 180 individuals and entities - a package short of the oil embargo proposed by Germany and France.[3] This array of policies highlights the firm differences in opinion between policy makers, regionally and internationally, on how best to respond to the Iranian nuclear programme. For this reason, an internationally unified approach is unlikely in the near future.

Bilateral Dispute, International Implications

Iran, for its part, continues to demonstrate a penchant for defiance. The hard-line government in Tehran moved to downgrade diplomatic relations with the UK on 27 November 2011. Presumably with regime acquiescence, protesters ransacked the British Embassy in Tehran two days later, igniting a diplomatic firestorm. The Iranian Embassy in London has since been ordered to close and its staff instructed to leave the country.

Whether intentionally or otherwise, Iran, through its actions, has unconvincingly framed the situation as a bilateral dispute. Tehran's defiance of its Security Council and IAEA obligations, and its unacceptable allowance of aggression towards British embassy staff, are troubling and significant for constituencies far beyond London. Directed at Iran's nuclear programme but made more urgent by recent hostility, the punitive mechanisms adopted by western nations show recognition of the situation's global implications. Washington is now awaiting House and Presidential approval of sanctions against the Iranian central bank.[4] Moreover, France and Germany have recalled their ambassadors and the EU has imposed sanctions of its own. Though two nations may appear at the centre of the dispute, the bilateral façade is thin.

Death of the Dual-Track Strategy?

November's developments, particularly the deterioration of relations between the West and Iran, have reduced available policy options for the former. The 'P5+1' group of states (China, France, Russia, the United States, United Kingdom, and Germany) previously committed themselves to a dual-track strategy towards Tehran. A combination of pressure and diplomacy, the policy was designed to change the Iranian regime's strategic calculus and encourage it to accept constraints on its nuclear activity. As part of this approach, the P5+1 countries held negotiations with Iranian leaders, creating a diplomatic opportunity for Iran to increase transparency and accountability surrounding its nuclear programme.

The last round of talks collapsed in early 2011, and prospects for further engagement seem increasingly remote. IAEA evidence of continuing enrichment and, to a lesser extent, possible military dimensions to the Iranian programme after 2003, is a clear reminder that negotiations with Tehran have historically borne little fruit. Similarly, Iran's speed in downgrading diplomatic relations and tacitly supporting the attack against the British Embassy has decreased Western appetite for diplomacy.

Thus, some members of the P5+1 appear to be re-evaluating their dual-track strategies. This is most remarkable in the case of the United Kingdom, which has effectively severed the diplomatic ties downgraded by Iran and thereby closed its negotiating channels with the country (The United States has not had diplomatic relations with Iran since 1979). Though less severe, actions by France and Germany suggest comparable policy emphasis on the second component of the dual-track approach - exertion of pressure. Whether the abandonment of the diplomatic strand of the strategy is permanent remains to be seen.

Sanctions and the Iranian Nuclear Programme

In light of the devaluation of diplomacy by some members of the P5+1, what options remain? As argued elsewhere by this author, the utility of military strikes against Iranian facilities was diminished by the evidence outlined in the IAEA Director General's report. Iranian nuclear facilities remain under safeguards, non-diversion of nuclear material is verified, and 'possible military dimensions' highlighted in the document centred on knowledge acquisition - something that cannot be undone by military action alone.

With diplomacy presently unfeasible and military action broadly ineffective, the policy tools available to western governments are limited. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that sanctions have been the favoured course of action for the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and the European Union. They are a familiar punitive mechanism at a time when firm, concrete action to address the Iranian nuclear programme is in high demand.

Though the type and scope of sanctions have varied between those imposing them, expectations for their 'success' must be carefully framed. In the same way that negotiations have failed to bring Iran in line with its Security Council and IAEA obligations, so too have past sanctions. Tehran has repeatedly shown its willingness to actively evade the sanctions policies erected against it.  India has been able to re-route payments for its Iranian oil debts through a Turkish bank. Beijing and Tehran agreed to exchange Chinese goods for oil to circumvent payment issues resulting from externally imposed sanctions.[5] While the difficulty of evaluating the effectiveness of trade and economic sanctions cannot be overstated, Iran has for years adapted to these measures and persisted in its nuclear activities.

It is thus unlikely that the measures presently under debate in Western nations will compel Iran to cease the activities which the IAEA has labelled of 'serious concern'. What comprehensive sanctions may succeed in doing, however, is inhibiting those illicit endeavours. Sanctions targeting key individuals, organisations, sectors or banks could make financing national endeavours in the nuclear energy field, as well as nuclear-relevant military experiments, increasingly difficult. This could buy the West much needed time to innovate or involve other key players, namely Russia and China, in a multilateral approach to a shared problem.

The views expressed here are the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI

NOTES 

[1] CIA Glossary and Acronyms, Central Intelligence Agency, Accessed 1 December 2011, <https://www.cia.gov/library/reports/general-reports-1/iraq_wmd_2004/glossary.html>

[2] 'UK announces new financial restrictions against Iran', Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 21 November 2011,

[3] 'EU to slap new sanctions on Iran's officials and firms', BBC News, 1 December 2011,

[4] 'US Senate passes sanctions on Iran central bank', BBC News, 2 December 2011,

[5] 'Iran clings to oil lifeline as U.S. pushes for tighter financial sanctions', Bloomberg, 1 December 2011, 

Author

Andrea Berger
Associate Fellow

Andrea Berger is an Associate Fellow at RUSI and a Senior Research Associate and Senior Program Manager at the James Martin Center... read more

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