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The Libya Option for Iran

Global efforts to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons will be given a new lease on life this month because France has assumed the presidency of the United Nations Security Council. France, which shares U.S. views about the need to strengthen sanctions on Iran’s government, can now raise the matter in the council, something that China eschewed during its tenure in January.

Despite the pain they impose, economic sanctions historically have a poor record of prompting countries to change fundamental policy. But there is a notable exception to this pattern: Libya’s decision in 2003 to abandon its nuclear weapons program. The country’s dramatic shift from the nearly quarter-century effort to get the bomb marks a remarkable proliferation reversal — and sanctions played a key role. How those sanctions worked in tandem with other forms of pressure provides hope that they may yet help turn Iran around.

If nothing else, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons were far more audacious than Iran’s. During the 1970s, he approached China, India and Pakistan. Fortunately, despite the fact that India and Pakistan were not signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty — and thus were not subject to its prohibition on disseminating arsenals — they, along with China, rebuffed Gadhafi’s requests. Undaunted, he sought to acquire technologies to produce the weapons. Here, the nonproliferation dikes failed.

Gadhafi exploited a network of opportunity. French-controlled mines in Niger provided uranium ore. An undisclosed country conveyed a pilot uranium-conversion facility. And the Soviet Union followed with a research reactor from which Libyan scientists extracted small amounts of plutonium.

But it was the father of Pakistan’s nuclear program, A.Q. Khan who furnished the technological linchpin: the rudiments for a nuclear centrifuge program. And the Pakistanis added a nuclear weapon design as well.

By 1988, Libya’s clash with the West reached its apex with the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Until then, the United States had led a lonely battle to isolate Libya by severing diplomatic relations and imposing economic sanctions and embargos on oil imports and arms exports. But not even a U.S. military strike in 1986 would move Libya away from its confrontational ways.

Prompted by the Lockerbie tragedy, Security Council sanctions adopted in 1992 and 1993 changed the dynamic. To force Libya to hand over the plotters, compensate victims’ families and cease terrorism, the council froze all air commerce in and out of the country and all arms shipments. In addition, a freeze on Libya’s financial assets abroad and exports of oil equipment cost the country an estimated $33 billion in revenue, exacerbating already high unemployment and inflation rates.

As a result, the government’s hold on power was shaken. Military coup makers and Islamists felt encouraged to contest the regime. They were brutally suppressed, but the sanctions nonetheless provoked an internal battle within Gadhafi’s coterie that pitted hard-liners, committed to the anti-Western crusade, against pragmatists who promoted integration into the global economy.

Confrontation continued, Gadhafi threw his weight behind the pragmatists, turned the Lockerbie bombers over to face trial, renounced terrorism and expelled the foreign terrorists based in Libya. In 1999, the Security Council responded by suspending sanctions.

But the nuclear program remained a laggard. Gadhafi continued to import nuclear technology secretly. In October 2003, Italian inspectors of a German ship uncovered a stash of centrifuges bound for Libya.

Faced with reimposition of harsher measures and with the pragmatists continuing their push to steer the country in a new direction, Gadhafi relented, trading the nuclear program for political normalization. In May 2006, the United States reopened its embassy in Tripoli.

The demise of Libya’s nuclear venture offers a template for dealing with Iran. It suggests that seriously challenging the nuclear venture will come not from more timid sanctions now, but from measures that encourage the pragmatists who populate the fractious Iranian government to promote normalization. The time to implement such a strategy is long overdue.

Bennett Ramberg served in the Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs in the administration of former U.S. President George H.W. Bush. © Project Syndicate

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