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.