Historically, governments have always directed attention away from domestic troubles at home by painting the “Other” as the great enemy, representing an existential threat to their national existence or way of life. In an era when the U.S. is recovering from its second biggest financial meltdown in history, and Israelis are economically discontent, the two powerful states instead decide to focus their attention on Iran via draconian sanctions, which increase financial hardship on Iran’s poor and middle classes by weakening the already fragile Iranian economy. In turn, Mahmoud Ahmadenijad and Ayatollah Khamenei make increasingly more anti-Semitic, ant-Israeli, and anti-American remarks. The good news is that despite the regional turmoil and the U.S.-Israel shadow war on Iran, the regime is making comments that express a greater readiness to negotiate.
Some will credibly argue that Iran’s new willingness to make concessions on its nuclear program is the result of sanctions, but they conveniently ignore the human toll that these measures have taken. The Economist details the incredibly rapid 80% depreciation of the Iranian rial, the increase of commodity prices even as wages have only increased 13%, and the estimated 34% unemployment rate. All the while, Iranian health care has suffered as sanctions block access to vital medical supplies. Initial sanctions were reasonable and aimed solely at Iran’s weapons program and military, but the financial and trade sanctions from 2010 onwards have indisputably hurt the average Iranian citizen.
U.S. and Israeli interests would be best served by an overthrow of the increasingly unpopular, hard-line, autocratic, Islamist regime, but implementing such morally atrocious sanctions increases anti-American sentiment and decreases the likelihood of events such as the 2009 anti-Ahmadenijad protests, as an increasingly impoverished population with a deteriorating middle class begin to support ayatollah-style Islamism. Look no further than the proclivity for Tunisians and Egyptians to elect Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islamists, as well as the majority support that Hamas typically enjoys in Gaza — areas that are all afflicted by extreme poverty and flailing economies.
Sanctions are designed to discourage the Iranian regime from producing nuclear weapons, but the C.I.A. and U.S. intelligence establishment have determined that Iran abandoned its plans to build a nuclear bomb in 2003. That’s not to say that Iran’s nuclear program is entirely benign (although it partially is) because the findings are inconclusive as to whether or not Iran seeks to build a nuclear warhead.
Nevertheless, their government clearly wants to keep the option on the table. Some speculate that this is deliberate “strategic ambiguity,” wherein Iran wants the capability to produce nuclear grade weapons but does not actually want to follow thorough. This line of thought is consistent with the regime’s other methods of foreign policy power projections, where they consistently deny and understate the effects of things such as attacks on their military facilities and their unemployment rate, which they currently list at 12%, a rate of three times below objective economic estimates.
Furthermore, Iranian religious authorities have declared a fatwa, an Islamic holy ruling, against the production, procurement, and use of nuclear arms. In preparation for upcoming negotiations, Iran’s foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, has proposed putting the fatwa into a treaty or law, using secular language, to legally bind the government to its rulings. Regardless, in a theocracy where Islamist judges have the final say in matters, a fatwa is more than sufficient to keep them in check unless they want to reveal themselves for the religious hypocrites that they are.
Even if Iran does not actually intend to produce nuclear armaments, they still want the option on the table and, considering their material support of the atrocious Assad dictatorship in Syria, their destabilization of Lebanon via arms shipments to Hezbollah, and their backing of Hamas in Gaza, excessive uranium enrichment should be eyed with a degree of caution.
The fact is, however, in order to produce nuclear weapons, uranium enrichment must be at a 90% level at the least. Iran is currently enriching uranium at a rate of 20%, well above the 3% to 4% level necessary for most domestic uses. However, 20% levels are necessary to fuel a medical research reactor in order to produce enough isotopes to treat Iran’s roughly 850,000 cancer patients.
At the beginning of President Obama’s first term, the U.S. extended the offer to provide enough medicinal isotopes to cover Iran’s cancer patients in exchange for a return to low levels of enrichment, but while Ahmadenijad agreed to the fuel swap, he would not reverse the 20% enrichment levels. Ahmadenijad tried to revive the deal in 2011 but, due to pressure from the ayatollahs, he did not agree to export the amount of uranium stockpiles that the U.S. demanded. In the most recent, and most futile, round of talks, Iran irrationally rejected a fuel swap but offered to scale back enrichment to 3.5% after it had the necessary amount of uranium to produce enough isotopes. Now, however, foreign minister Salehi says that Iran is willing to limit itself to 5% enrichment contingent on a guarantee that Western powers will provide the country with any fuel that requires enrichment over 5%.
Although American and Israeli media would have you believe otherwise, Iran has never once violated the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). They have acquiesced to more than a cumulative total of 4,000 days of inspections from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In contrast, Israel has not even signed the NPT and is known to have nuclear weapons as a result of a nuclear program instituted by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, going so far as to censor the Israeli press on the rare occasion that it does not censor itself. The U.S. has permitted Israel to possess nuclear weapons since the Nixon administration learned of them. If the U.S. is genuinely interested in peace, it must be an objective, impartial intermediary and cannot afford double standards.