10/04/2012 06:34 pm ET Updated Dec 04, 2012

Iran: No to Sanctions, No to War

The latest news from Iran is heartening to those who support sanctions as a means to prevent the Islamic Republic from developing nuclear weapons.

The economy is in shambles, with the Iranian rial losing value at an unprecedented rate. The people are feeling the pain and there are anti-government demonstrations for the first time since the 2009 election. A nervous regime is blaming "agitators" for the crisis and is arresting supposed troublemakers.

It appears that sanctions are working. Even if they are only part of the reason Iran's economy is in trouble (economic mismanagement is also a factor), it is clear that sanctions are having an effect. The Obama administration insists that they are "working."

But are they really? The answer is "yes," if their purpose is to inflict pain on the Iranian people. It is "no" if sanctions are intended to cause Iran to abandon or scale down its nuclear program.

Yes, it is possible that sanctions-produced economic hardship might fuel a revolution that would topple the current regime, much as the Shah was toppled. That could happen and few developments would be more welcome.

However, there is no evidence that any Iranian government would comply with western demands related to uranium enrichment. Support for Iran's nuclear program is as strong among the anti-government forces as within the regime. A democratic and/or secular Iran would still refuse to yield to the west's demands.

This is from TIME magazine:

The price paid by ordinary Iranians for their country's nuclear program is rising as sanctions bite at their standard of living. The past year has seen rents soar; electricity bills have doubled; meat and fresh fruit, even vital medicines, have become luxury items; and the national airline has become unsafe and inconvenient, with sanctions blocking refueling access at Western airports and the sale of replacement parts for its fleet of aging American planes. The choking effects of economic sanctions are being felt, in different ways, from the low-slung apartment blocks of south Tehran all the way to the gauche penthouse towers of the capital's north. But despite the decline in living standards accelerated by economic isolation, Iranians remain remarkably united behind the country's nuclear program.

In theory, the current regime could be replaced by one that, like that of the Shah, would be a western puppet and would dismantle the nuclear program. Of course, that kind of regime would have to be imposed from the outside, following an invasion like the one that took down Saddam Hussein in Iraq. That may be what the neoconservatives dream about, but it is not going to happen. Besides, another regime like that of the Shah, beloved by Americans and Israelis, would last only as long as we could occupy the country.

In short, it is impossible to imagine any contingency in which sanctions "work." It is likely that the Iran hawks know that too, which is why just beneath their praise for sanctions is the strong hint that only war would do the trick.

Here is a typical statement, coming from the Washington Institute For Near East Policy, a bastion of hawkishness close to the Israeli government. It appeared in Foreign Policy on October 4.

On their own, sanctions are unlikely to work. Instead, for the United States to succeed in its aims, sanctions must be just one part of a broad, coordinated and disciplined policy which brings all policy tools to bear on the goal of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

You don't need a magnifying glass to read between the lines in that paragraph.

No, the Iran hawks remain determined to achieve war, preferably one launched by the United States but, failing that, launched by Israel (backed by the United States).

Of course, that wouldn't end the Iranian nuclear program either. In fact, according to former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (who served in that post in the Bush and Obama administrations) attacking Iran would accelerate its weapon program and be "catastrophic" overall. Here is what Gates said in a speech in Norfolk this week as reported by the Virginian-Pilot.

Neither the United States nor Israel is capable of wiping out Iran's nuclear capability, he said, and "such an attack would make a nuclear-armed Iran inevitable. They would just bury the program deeper and make it more covert." Iran could respond by disrupting world oil traffic and launching a wave of terrorism across the region, Gates said.

"The results of an American or Israeli military strike on Iran could, in my view, prove catastrophic, haunting us for generations in that part of the world."

The bottom line then is that neither sanctions nor war can succeed. That leaves one option that is never considered: unconditional diplomacy.

The Iranians want sanctions lifted. We want assurances that they will not produce a bomb. Thus far, we have gone into negotiations demanding that the Iranians freeze nuclear fuel enrichment while, at the same time, saying sanctions will not be lifted. That is not diplomacy; it's an ultimatum, what the Germans call a diktat.

And we are surprised that the Iranians say no.

Enough already. We can either negotiate fairly or we can simply acknowledge that Iran, a sovereign state, will do what it chooses to do. Neither sanctions nor war can change that. Only honest diplomacy can.