Cliff May

Sanctions have been controversial and that, too, has proved beneficial: It has shined a light on Iran’s ideology, policies and actions at a time when most journalists reporting from Iran are either credulous or sympathetic to the regime. (To be anything else is hazardous to your health.)

Over time, reality has been sinking in. Despite a vigorous propaganda effort by Iran’s apologists, 80% of Americans believe the regime’s nuclear program menaces the US and its NATO allies, according to a poll taken this summer.

Last week, Canada closed its embassy in Iran, gave Iranian diplomats in Canada five days to pack up and leave, and formally designated Iran a “state sponsor of terrorism.” A government statement was unequivocal: “Canada views the Government of Iran as the most significant threat to global peace and security in the world today.” The Iranian response was typical: A spokesmen for Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson called the Canadian government “racist.”

In an editorial last week, the Washington Post , hardly a conservative or hawkish newspaper, said that “if Mr. Obama really is determined to take military action if Iran takes decisive steps toward producing a bomb, such as enriching uranium to bomb-grade levels or expelling inspectors, he would be wise to say so publicly. Doing so would improve relations with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and deter unilateral Israeli action — and it might well convince Iran that the time has come to compromise.”

Exactly: The soft talk of diplomacy and relatively small stick of sanctions need to be buttressed by a big stick – a credible warning that force will be used should peaceful options prove insufficient..

So what’s next? The Israelis are wrestling with what may be the most difficult decision they have ever faced: whether and when to use whatever military capabilities they have in an attempt to disable Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

The sanctions in place now are tough – but nowhere near as tough as they could be. To increase economic pressure the US would, at a minimum, blacklist both the Central Bank of Iran and Iran’s energy sector.

Beyond that, the U.S. could impose a comprehensive international trade and investment embargo on Iran, declaring Iran’s entire economy a “zone of primary proliferation concern.” European and other foreign companies would be asked to halt any and all dealings with Iran except for the provision of food and medicine. Such measures – there are others, a long list -- could precipitate a serious economic crisis. How soon? To determine that would require some number crunching.

There are those who will say that these actions are tantamount to economic warfare. They are not wrong. But Iran’s rulers have been at war with America for more than 30 years. The question now: What will we do to prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons with which to wage it?

And should Israel decide that the imminent acquisition of nukes by a regime openly committed to its annihilation requires a military response sooner rather than later, having tougher sanctions in place will be indispensable. The day after such a clash, Western diplomats should be able to tell the theocrats that the resuscitation of Iran’s economy cannot begin until their nuclear weapons program is moribund, and they have stopped sponsoring terrorists abroad and violating fundamental human rights at home. At that point, the Iranian people are sure to have opinions of their own. With a little encouragement they may have the courage to express them.

Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.