ISTANBUL, Turkey — As the Obama administration considers new measures to curb Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program, the Islamic Republic's internal unrest and the growing influence of its Revolutionary Guard Corps may make it more vulnerable to new sanctions.
Years of sanctions aimed at stopping Iran's nuclear progress have done little to change Iran's policies. Iran's top officials, in fact, regularly boast that the sanctions have forced them to reach new levels of technical prowess and self-sufficiency by enriching uranium and building what they say is a peaceful nuclear power program from scratch.
However, as the White House signals that it's pursuing targeted sanctions against Iran — a departure from the "crippling sanctions" once suggested by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and bills before Congress to strangle Iran's gasoline imports — analysts suggest that sanctions could have more impact now.
Iran is "more vulnerable in two ways," said Shahram Chubin, a Geneva-based Iran expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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First, protests and street clashes since disputed presidential elections last June mean that a "significant" portion of Iranians "are likely to blame the regime for sanctions which are not so broad as to hurt everybody," said Chubin.
Second, the Revolutionary Guard Corps' expanding control over more diverse chunks of Iran's economy, including billions of dollars of new acquisitions and contracts in the past six months, makes it a "bigger target, so presumably it could be targeted relatively accurately," said Chubin.
Still, he added, even a careful combination of such sanctions — aimed solely at the IRGC and its front companies, for example — isn't likely to make Iran "more vulnerable in the sense that tomorrow they are going to stop the (nuclear) program."
Iran's nuclear standoff with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the U.S. — plus Germany deepened on Monday when France rejected a new deadline that Iran set over the weekend for accepting Tehran's revised terms for a nuclear fuel swap.
Iran first accepted, then rejected the deal that the six nations offered last October, with an informal end-of-year deadline, to exchange Iran's low-enriched uranium for higher-grade fuel it needs for medical purposes.
"We are not the ones who have to decide whether to accept what they want to impose on us," said French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.
Given the political turmoil in Iran and the government's apparent inability until recently to coordinate a response to the nuclear offer, the U.S. has been reluctant to impose new sanctions on Iran — although the Obama administration had promised "consequences" if Iran didn't accept the deal by the end of the year.
However, U.S. officials have grown increasingly skeptical that Iran is on the verge of building a nuclear weapon, and UN weapons inspectors have reported that its enrichment efforts have slowed.
Experts now think that fewer than 4,000 of the existing 8,700 centrifuges at Iran's main enrichment plant at Natanz are working. Add to that reported covert Western action aimed at slowing Iran's nuclear program, and there's more time for diplomacy to work, said Chubin.
"There are things we don't see, like sabotage and so on, defections — all of that is probably quite effective" at slowing down Iran's program, said Chubin, the author of "Iran's Nuclear Ambitions."
"The thing is the deadline. If you keep shifting your estimate as to when (Iran is) going to achieve some capability, you are also shifting the time you've got for diplomacy to work," Chubin said.
"Basically, U.S. policy is to buy time. Nobody thinks (the Iranians) are going to reverse the program. They may freeze it a little bit, slow it down; but they are not going to reverse it. So you may be able to live with the functional equivalent of a limping program."
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