The Wall Street Journal  yesterday reported that a new U.S. national intelligence estimate (NIE) says that the bite of international sanctions may be sowing discord among Iranian leaders. The NIE’s findings suggest that some Iranian leaders are worried that economic turmoil fueled in part by international sanctions could spur opposition to the regime; and that, as a result, Iran’s leaders are locked in an increasingly heated debate over whether to move further toward developing nuclear weapons.
But a range of Israeli intelligence officials and American analysts say that this analysis is simplistic. It’s true that economic sanctions are placing the Iranian regime in a difficult place, said a senior-most former Israeli intelligence commander in Jerusalem this week. But this has not diminished their motivation to proceed with the nuclear program. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei believes that nuclear weapons are his regime’s insurance policy. Thus, even though sanctions are adding to ethnic tensions and forcing budgetary cuts, he told the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, it will take a lot more political and military pressure to stop the Iranians in their tracks – if at all.
In one respect, this top Israeli agreed with the new NIE: There is no smoking gun evidence that the Iranians have yet decided to proceed in assembling a nuclear bomb. “They are enriching uranium to weapons grade levels – yes. They are continuing their weapons design work – yes. They are developing their long-range delivery capabilities – yes. But we know of no order to actually make a bomb. Apparently, the Iranian strategy is to build capacity across a wide range of fields, and stockpile all necessary components in many locations. When they are ready to break out, it will be so fast we’ll barely have time to notice.”
Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and its Iran Energy Project agrees with the Israeli assessment of sanctions. “Sanctions are causing significant economic dislocation to Iran,” he told the 2011 Herzliya Conference, “but they can be compared to silver shrapnel. Sanctions are not a silver bullet that will stop the nuclear program.” Dubowitz noted that no company has been punished by the US government for violating sanctions, and that crude oil exports from Iran have not been halted. Banks, he said, still need to be discouraged from facilitating oil transfers from Iran and from financing long-term oil contracts for Iran.
Prof. Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, is even blunter. “There is no historical precedent for the success of sanctions, anywhere, in any conflict in the world, without the credible threat of the use of force,” he told the Conference of Presidents on Wednesday. “Unfortunately, the Obama administration says that ‘all options are on the table’ but it has not convinced Tehran that it is seriously willing to use force if necessary. Economic pain alone is of little consequence to the Iranian leadership elite. It has a high threshold for pain, and in any case – in dictatorships, elites always eat well!”
Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born analyst based in Tel Aviv, is one of the few analysts who believes that sanctions may be bringing Tehran close to the brink of collapse. “$60 billion are missing from the Iranian budget,” he told the Herzliya Conference, “and $1 billion is missing from Central Bank accounts. This was probably drained away by the nuclear program. Food subsidies have been cut, probably to finance the nuclear program. The press is forbidden from writing about the impact of sanctions, and the government refuses to report to parliament about Iranian oil revenues. This does not bode well for Tehran.”
Menashe Amir, who has been broadcasting for Israel Radio to his native Iran for more than half a century, also believes that the ayatollahs’ regime in nearing an end — because it is ‘artificial’. But in a lengthy interview in today’s Jerusalem Post  he warns that the regime won’t go quietly. “Iran isn’t Egypt. The Revolutionary Guard isn’t the Egyptian Army that refused to fire on the protestors.” Similarly, journalist Yossi Klein Halevy has warned that we could end up with a Middle East where only the ‘hard’ dictators survive (like Ahmadinejad), while the ‘soft’ dictators (like Mubarak) who don’t have the guts or the ability to violently put down unrest – disappear…