By pushing Russia to consider the option of greater sanctions on Iran in her meeting with President Dmitry Medvedev this week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may be endorsing a policy that will end up biting her in the back of her pantsuit. Apart from the fact that Moscow is unlikely to support such a policy given its strong trade relations with Tehran, there’s also the issue of effectiveness. If the past 30 years have taught us anything in Iran, it is that sanctions are not an effective way to change the so-called Islamic Republic of Iran’s behavior, nuclear or otherwise.
The idea that Iran poses a genuine nuclear threat to the international community is highly misguided at best. For one, even if Iran had nuclear weapons, which no one has confirmed, it would have no more than a handful. According to the Federation of Atomic Scientists, Israel has roughly 80 nuclear weapons and the United States, its chief ally, has over 9,000. The massive retaliation that any attack on Israel would undoubtedly produce would surely obliterate Iran — dare I say, wipe it off the map. As a result, much like the recent mass trials of opposition leaders, journalists and protesters, any nuclear weapons that Iran might have are purely for show.
As the world recently witnessed at the UN General Assembly, contested President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad talks a good game. But for all his theatrics, Ahmadinejad has about as much independent power as a skilled stagehand. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei runs the show in Iran. He controls the armed forces and were anyone to push the button, it would be Khamenei, not Ahmadinejad. And while Khamenei is happy to taunt Western powers with claims of nuclear capabilities, he’s not about to send a formal invitation to their military forces by bombing Israel.
Iran is not agreeing to further meetings with world leaders and the International Atomic Energy Agency solely to make friends or compromises. It is doing so on a massive PR campaign. By convincing the world that the greatest threat Iran poses is a nuclear one, the Iranian regime succeeds in promoting the false notion that its own greatest threat is not domestic turmoil, but rather foreign retaliation in response to its alleged nuclear weapons program. Still, no matter how hard the regime tries to convince the world otherwise, it’s clear that Iran’s strongest adversary today remains within its own borders, in the form of an increasingly frustrated, determined and defiant Iranian opposition movement.
Foreign sanctions or military attacks would thus prove counterproductive in that they would only strengthen the regime by punishing the Iranian people for the actions of their illegitimate rulers. And the Iranian people represent by far the greatest hope the world has in replacing the allegedly Islamic Republic of Iran with a truly democratic one.
Iran has been under sanctions for the past 30 years, and its behavior has not changed as a result. What has changed, however, is the social and economic condition of the Iranian people. Inflation and unemployment rates are embarrassingly high, and by all accounts, the regime could care less.
The current Iranian regime has far more to fear from its own people than it does from any foreign powers. More than any outsiders, Iranians know exactly where their government’s soft spots lie, and they are fearlessly and relentlessly aiming directly at them.
The opposition’s chants of “Allah-u Akbar” and particularly its ability to create its own symbolic martyrs, such as Neda Agha-Soltan and Sohrab Arabi, are proof of this fact. By appealing to Islam and the strong Shi’a emphasis on martyrdom to point out how painfully un-Islamic the allegedly “Islamic” Republic of Iran has become, the Iranian people are striking precisely where the regime is most vulnerable. Green is not only the color of the pro-democracy movement. It is also the color of Islam, and yet another example of how the “Greens” are successfully using Islam to fight a regime that falsely claims to be promoting it.
Thus, the Iranian opposition is shaking the very foundation of the current regime by pointing out its failure to defend generally agreed-upon Islamic values such as justice, equality, courtesy, compassion and non-compulsion in religion. Similarly, the opposition is also drawing attention to the government’s violation of it’s own Constitution, not just international law, in its brutal post-election crackdown on protesters, journalists and opposition leaders.
By attacking their government’s claims to Islam and republicanism, the opposition is destabilizing this regime from within to make way for a better, legitimate government in the future. If an attack were to come from the outside, however, it could destroy both the government and the people of Iran, like a deadly round of chemotherapy that kills both the cancer and the patient in the process.
Sanctions and military attacks will not weaken the regime. Rather, they will only weaken the regime’s greatest enemy to date: the millions of angry young Iranians who constitute over 70 percent of the current population and who are sick of being told what they can and can’t say, do, print or wear. The Iranian people will paralyze this regime faster and more effectively than any foreign military or economic retribution ever could.
If the most famous of this year’s Nobel Prize winners truly wants to see a safer, more peaceful and less militarized world, he would be wise to stop harping on Iran’s possible nuclear armament and focus more on American disarmament. In this respect, Secretary Clinton could achieve far greater gains for the prospect of peace on earth by discussing the disarmament of the two greatest nuclear powers and threats on our planet while they’re both in the same room. With a combined 25,000 nuclear weapons to their names, it would do the U.S. and Russia some good to commit to a little domestic clean-up of their own before pointing fingers and waging threats abroad.