Michael Rubin, a former editor of the Middle East Quarterly, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School. He formerly served as a political adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq and has written extensively about Iranian history and politics. He is the author of Into the Shadows: Radical Vigilantes in Khatami's Iran (2001) and the co-author of Eternal Iran (2005). On March 19, Rubin addressed the Middle East Forum in Philadelphia about the efficacy of sanctions on Iran as well as the prospect and logistics of an Israeli strike.
Can sanctions against the Iranian regime be effective? Michael Rubin addressed this question by citing Tehran's former nuclear negotiator, who revealed that previous suspensions of Iranian nuclear enrichment had merely been temporary ploys aimed at ameliorating international pressure and preventing a UN consensus on sanctions. Rubin argued that Iran's bleak current economic outlook is due not to sanctions but to the regime's mismanagement of the economy.
Whether sanctions can cause the regime to change tack is a different story. Twice before, Tehran has staked out very firm positions only to ultimately reverse course: in 1981, when fifty-two American hostages were released after 444 days in captivity—the reason for which, Rubin explained, is a topic of much debate—and in 1988, when Ayatollah Khomeini accepted a ceasefire to end the Iran-Iraq War. Khomeini admitted that the ceasefire was like "drinking a poisoned chalice" but that eight years of bitter stalemate and the desolation of the Iranian economy left him no choice.
What measures can be imposed today that would force Iran to again drink the proverbial poisoned chalice? Rubin suggested that broader, rather than targeted, sanctions would be a good start. It may be necessary to cause some "pain for ordinary people," he noted, "if our goal is to start a grassroots movement."
Rubin voiced reservations about taking the diplomatic route. With only ten percent of the Revolutionary Guards (IRG)'s revenues coming from the government, the force has effectively "gone rogue." Even if a deal was struck with the Iranian regime, the IRG—with its control over the country's main cargo airport, many of the customs gates at the Imam Khomeini International Airport, and, most likely, a nuclear weapons program—would still pose a grave physical and ideological obstacle. For this reason, a policy of deterrence doesn't sit well with Israel or America. Moreover, were the regime to be defeated, the potential for the IRG to launch missiles simply out of spite, as did Gaddafi's forces at Misrata when defeat became imminent, suggests that containment isn't a viable option either.
The question is, therefore, whether Israel could pull off an air strike on Iran. Even if the Jewish state succeeded in striking under a veil of secrecy, this would quickly disappear once the pilots delivered their payloads, and they would still have to travel about 700 miles before exiting Iranian airspace. Thus, Iranian control centers and air defenses would also need to be eliminated, requiring an operation of such magnitude that an Israeli attack would be both improbable and ineffective.
Against this backdrop, Rubin emphasized the importance of distinguishing the Iranian people from the regime, citing a poll that suggests that only 25 percent of Iranians favor the clerical system, while 75 percent have given up on it. With little faith in the efficacy of the aforementioned options, Rubin proposed that we leverage and embolden this majority, push for regime change, and ask ourselves: how can we empower the Iranian people?
Summary account by Alex Berman.