Now is a better time than ever before to apply pressure. Iran is already under substantial pressure, both inside and outside its borders. Abroad, Syria, Iran’s only ally in the region, is being torn apart by civil war. President Bashar Assad, Tehran’s man in Damascus, is under enormous stress, and his government is showing increasing signs of fracturing. The end of Assad’s Syria would be, in the words of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the greatest strategic loss for Iran in 25 years (a point underscored by Tehran’s desperate supplying of arms and men to Assad).
Iran’s nuclear program has also recently suffered a number of major setbacks. Tehran has failed in several efforts to acquire sensitive materials from companies abroad — most notably, an attempt to secure over 100,000 specialty magnets, probably intended for a major expansion of its gas-centrifuge program. While the number of centrifuges and the production of enriched uranium at both Natanz and Fordow continue to increase, successful interdictions have placed additional pressure on the program.
Economic sanctions are finally being applied in ways that are disrupting Iran’s economy. The national currency is close to collapse. Oil production has fallen by almost 50 percent. Foreign-exchange reserves are steadily eroding. These and other effects of sanctions are forcing the regime to contemplate significant reductions in subsidies for gasoline, housing, and food, handouts that are essential to retain the loyalty of its supporters.
The greatest pressure on the regime comes from within; as with all authoritarian governments, the mullahs’ greatest fear is their own people. This is their existential threat. In the summer of 2009, Iran’s leaders were shocked by the level of protests sparked by evidence of pervasive voter fraud and government corruption. This June’s presidential elections hold the same, if not greater, potential for protest and revolt. Recent infighting, pitting President Ahmadinejad against the leadership of the parliament and the courts, reflects the regime’s current vulnerability.
The key to achieving a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear challenge is to let all of these pressures build on the already-precarious government. We failed to do this with North Korea and we are seeing the consequences today. Now is not the time for more concessions with Iran.
— Robert Joseph is a former undersecretary of state for arms control and international security.