With each passing month, Iran appears closer to the nuclear capability threshold everyone expects to be a regional game-changer. With diplomacy unable to yield a desirable compromise and widespread scepticism about the viability (let alone desirability) of military pre-emption, sanctions remain the best way forward. But are they working?
Sanctions are primarily meant to raise Iran's stakes and convince its leader a compromise is better than economic distress. By this yardstick, sanctions have failed. Negotiations have continued on and off for almost ten years, with no compromise in sight. Iran now has thousands of centrifuges installed, successfully enriching uranium at nearly 20 per cent—a step away from the threshold for weapons-grade fuel. No amount of pressure seems to be stopping a regime that is impervious to the economic pain felt by its subjects.
Even the International Atomic Energy Agency concedes that there is no evidence that sanctions are working. Speaking to reporters after he released the IAEA's November 2012 report on Iran's nuclear programme, IAEA General Director Yukiya Amano was quoted as saying, "We are verifying the activities at the nuclear sites in Iran and we do not see any effect" [from sanctions]. IAEA graphs, published in the agency's September 2012 quarterly report on Iran's programme, chart Iran's enrichment progress, showing a steadily rising curve, clearly devoid of any sign of disruption from sanctions or covert action.
Part of the reason sanctions appear to be failing is that much of their focus has been on preventing proliferation rather than undermining the regime's stability. Whenever UN, EU or US sanctions have gone after a particular proliferating concern—usually an Iranian company or one of its subsidiaries—Iran has simply proceeded to move its operations into another jurisdiction, or created new front companies to elude restrictive measures. It may take months, if not years, to expose such diversions. By the time the new companies have been targeted as well, Iran is several steps ahead.