Intelligently enough, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said this week during her whirlwind tour of the Arab states of the Persian Gulf—Abu Dhabi and Dubai, Qatar, Yemen, Oman—that war with Iran is not a good idea. Saying that she was aware of the "drumbeat" of war talk, most of which is coming from a small minority of neoconservative hardliners, Clinton added:
"I think it's very important that we look at how disastrous such a war would be for everyone. And it still is a fact that there is no solution to the problems that beset the area through war. War will not resolve the longstanding concerns."
But Clinton then went on to mix apples and oranges, asserting that "sanctions are working," slowing down Iran's nuclear research program. In this case, however, the "apples" are the highly targeted sanctions that seek to prevent Iran from acquiring the technology and materials that it needs to build more centrifuges, add to its missile capacity, and so on. And the "oranges" are the onerous, destructive economic sanctions that are supposedly designed to bring Iran to its knees politically and to compel Iran to halt its nuclear enrichment program. In the eyes of the hawks and neoconservatives, the "oranges" are really aimed at sparking a revolt in Iran, bringing down the government, and forcing "regime change."
So far, it’s unclear whether the former sanctions, the "apples," are working, but it is at least plausible. According to the IAEA and others, apparently including US and Israeli intelligence, Iran's enrichment program has suffered setbacks, and at least a good portion of the centrifuges at Natanz aren't working properly. Last week, the outgoing head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, declared that Iran wouldn't be able to manufacture a bomb until 2015. Whether that's because of the sanctions, or because of the Mossad's own campaign of sabotage and assassination—Dagan's preferred narrative—or for some other reason, isn't clear.
But, according to the Wall Street Journal, Iran has had trouble acquiring what it needs, including "maraging steel" for the a component of the centrifuges called the "bellows" and carbon fiber used in the centrifuge rotors. If so, then that part of the sanctions, at least, are effective.
Appearing on a UAE TV show called Sweet Talk, Clinton said:
"The most recent analysis is that the sanctions have been working. They have made it much more difficult for Iran to pursue its nuclear ambitions. Their program, from our best estimate, has been slowed down. So we have time. But not a lot of time."
So, two points in her favor: that she disparaged the war talk and that she said that there is time to deal with Iran's nuclear program, i.e., that it isn't an immediate crisis.
But on the broader point, the United States is pursuing a sanctions policy that goes far, far beyond what’s needed to counteract Iran’s ability to purchase technology, materials and equipment for its nuclear program. By cutting off Iran's finances, forcing Western and Asian companies to stop dealing with Iran in areas such as oil, gasoline and petrochemicals, by trying to shut down Iran’s oil exports, and so on, the United States is engaged in what can only be called a "regime change" policy. Very few analysts believe that such a policy is productive, and many—including myself—believe that it’'s counterproductive, since it pushes Iran into a corner, inflames the atmosphere for negotiations, and makes it easier for Iran's hardliners to argue that the Great Satan is the cause of Iran’s economic woes.
Iran does, indeed, have economic problems, most of which result from economic mismanagement by the Ahmadinejad government, which has purged technocrats from positions of influence and replaced them with loyal stooges whose loyalty is stronger than their competence.