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The Obama Administration's Iranian Sanctions Plan: Law Enforcement, Not Strategic Power

The new sanctions proposed by the U.S. government, and reportedly accepted by the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council — Britain, China, France, and Russia — will force Iranian officials to work harder. That is, they will have to put in some extra hours to circumvent restrictions that can be easily broken.

In addition, the sanctions, if adopted, will make it somewhat harder for Iran to get arms and investments. Yet at this stage of the process, they are hardly appropriate for the extent of Iranian determination. Many will argue that this is the best outcome the Obama administration could get from its approach. That’s true, and shows why the problem is the approach.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says these are the “toughest sanctions to date,” though all the details are not yet clear.  But they are significantly weaker than what has been discussed earlier, far weaker than what Congress has proposed with bipartisan support.

The paradox, of course, is this: If you don’t get every country to sign on to the sanctions they can become like Swiss cheese in that they are widely violated. Thus, getting unanimity is a success.

On the other side, however, are several other points.

First, they will be violated anyway. To cite a past example, there were sanctions on arms shipments to Iraq after 1991. But when U.S. forces invaded the country in 2003 they found that China had supplied equipment, including anti-aircraft systems. No U.S. or UN diplomatic action was ever taken regarding this violation.

Second, if one actually reads the text of the resolution, the actual sanctions appear much weaker than they do in the media coverage, with the New York Times actually misstating the provisions by making voluntary actions sound as if they are mandatory. I’ll get back to that in a second.

Third, if the Obama administration puts almost all its marbles into a multilateral approach first — doing nothing unilateral in the meantime — than this may well be the best it can do. Yet an alternative strategy could have had the United States and supportive allies — which would have included Britain, France, and Germany to begin with — instituting tougher sanctions months ago. This would not only hit Iran harder but also signal to other countries that they should follow the U.S. example.

So the Obama administration kept its promise of acting in a multilateral context, more as a first among equals rather than as a leader, but the result was getting far less done.

According to the New York Times:

Like the three resolutions that preceded it, it is probably not tough enough to change minds in Tehran. But the fact that Russia and China — Iran’s longtime enablers — have signed on is likely to make some players in Iran’s embattled government nervous. (We know we can’t wait to hear what changed Beijing’s mind.)

Hey, there’s no need to wait. The Wall Street Journal provides the answer: “Many provisions contain loopholes allowing countries to evade their intent: They only urge, rather than require, countries to comply.” And that’s what changed Beijing’s mind.

So what’s in the draft resolution? A lot of exhortation about what Iran should do. There is more of Canute than of Moses; that is the sea is commanded to roll back but without much hope this will happen. For example, it says that “Iran shall not begin construction on any new uranium enrichment, reprocessing, or heavy water-related facility and shall discontinue any ongoing construction of any [such places].”

And what if Iran does so anyway? Will there be a new resolution after it gets nuclear weapons?

The same applies to the provision that the Security Council “decides” that Iran won’t build “missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons”

But more materially the resolution provides:

  • Iran shouldn’t buy part of companies in other countries that do uranium mining, nuclear production, or missile technology. Nice, but it is just buying and smuggling material it needs and already has a lot of the fixings thanks to Pakistan, North Korea, China, and perhaps Russia and some others.
  • States will stop the sale of military equipment — including planes, artillery, tanks, and helicopters — to Iran and won’t let such shipments pass through their territory. This is perhaps the most impressive aspect but, again, smuggling has been going on and will continue, probably from China as well.
  • Countries won’t let in designated individuals, that is specific people involved in building nuclear weapons for Iran, including some particular Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officials. I guess they can just keep sending different people as needed.
  • The most confusing provision is that states ought to “inspect,” in accord with their own law, cargo to and from Iran that they have reasonable cause to believe includes nuclear weapons related material, “may request” inspections of Iranian vessels if the country in which the ship is registered agrees, and can refuse port facilities to such ships. If they find such material they can seize it.
  • Finally, it “calls” upon states not to allow financial services or insurance to those involved in selling nuclear or missile-related stuff to Iran.

That’s it. That’s what we’ve been waiting for these last eighteen months.

Now, what is the most important point of all regarding this resolution? It is a slamming the barn door after the horse has left situation. The effort is to keep Iran from getting more equipment for its nuclear and missile program at a time when Tehran already has most of what it needs and the rest can be smuggled in or provided by countries — North Korea, Pakistan, Syria, and probably China — who will break the provisions.

In short, it is a law enforcement measure rather than a strategic political measure. The exception here is the provision regarding arms sales which is going to be very interesting to watch.

But Iran’s economy is not seriously constricted, not even very much inconvenienced. That’s why doing such things as shutting down its oil and other energy industries, as the U.S. Congress advocates, is so important. Instead, the proposed plan would be more appropriate for combating drug smugglers than a radical state which threatens regional, and hence, world stability.

The problem is not just (or so much) that the plan is a weak one, but that it is focused on inhibiting the speed of the nuclear program rather than pressuring Iran by raising the cost of building nuclear weapons sky-high.