LOS ANGELES — International 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. As Council president, France — which shares America’s views about the need to strengthen sanctions on Iran’s government — can raise the matter, something that China eschewed during its tenure in January as UNSC leader.

But, even if a revived Franco-American effort were to succeed in getting the UNSC to endorse targeted penalties to hamstring the financial underpinnings of the Revolutionary Guards and other Iranian elites, the proposed measures appear to be too modest.

They arguably add little to three prior sanction resolutions that ban the export of nuclear and ballistic-missile technology and conventional arms and freeze the assets and travel of a handful of Iranian officials. Moreover, 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 December 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 President Moammar Gadhafi’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons were far more audacious than Iran’s. The saga began within a year of Gadhafi’s 1969 overthrow of King Idris. With no wherewithal to manufacture a nuclear bomb, Gadhafi sought to buy one.

During the 1970s, he approached China, India and Pakistan. Fortunately, despite the fact that India and Pakistan lay outside the Nuclear Nonproliferation 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 — and his network — that furnished the technological linchpin: the rudiments for a nuclear centrifuge program. And the Pakistanis added a nuclear weapon design as well.

As Libya mounted its effort, the International Atomic Energy Agency remained clueless. Despite published speculation about the country’s nuclear intentions, the IAEA considered Libya to be NPT-compliant. The absence of international resistance normally would have allowed Libya a clear field to realize its ambition. But Gadhafi’s hubris and revolutionary zeal blunted the goal by stimulating the imposition of international sanctions that ultimately brought down his nuclear program.

By 1988, Libya’s clash with the West reached its apex with the bombing of Pan Am 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 embargoes on oil imports and arms exports. But not even the Reagan administration’s 1986 military strike 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 UNSC froze all air commerce in an out of the country, all aircraft maintenance and all arms shipments, as well as reducing diplomatic representation. 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 confidence and hold on power were 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.

Confronting continued, albeit fraying sanctions, Gadhafi threw his weight behind the pragmatists, turning the Lockerbie bombers over to face trial, renouncing the terrorism that he had promoted, and expelling the foreign terrorists who made Libya their home. In 1999, the Security Council responded by suspending sanctions.

But the nuclear program remained a laggard. Gadhafi continued to import nuclear technology secretly, even as his diplomats privately negotiated a modus vivendi with the U.S. and Britain. In October 2003, Italian inspectors of a German ship moored in Italy uncovered a stash of centrifuges bound for Libya.

Faced with 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. On May 31, 2006, the U.S. reopened its embassy in Tripoli, ending the quarter-century hiatus in diplomatic relations.

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 George H.W. Bush administration. He is the author of several books on international security. © 2010 Project Syndicate

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