Sometime this month, various branches of the government will orchestrate a series of measures to further isolate Iran economically. President Obama is pushing for a fourth round of international sanctions against Iran at the UN Security Council, resulting in what is widely expected to be a series of targeted measures aimed at Iran’s nuclear program and its sponsors in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and it’s likely that the Security Council will act by June. In Congress a bill aimed at cutting off Iran’s imports of gasoline and refined petroleum products is expected to land on the president’s desk by the end of May. And at the Treasury Department officials are reportedly planning another round of unilateral American sanctions targeting Iran’s financial sector, including both its private banks and even Bank Markazi, the Iranian central bank.
Behind all these actions—which will, in fact, inflict real suffering on ordinary Iranians—is a dirty little secret, however: virtually no one, including the proponents of sanctions, thinks they can work as intended, namely, to compel Iran to change its policy, suspend its uranium enrichment program and accept stricter oversight by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Inside the Obama administration, it’s widely recognized that no combination of economic sanctions is likely to succeed. In Congress, even the most hawkish backers of the gasoline sanctions bill expect that it will fail. "Even crushing sanctions might not do the job," says Representative Ed Royce, a California Republican who is a chief sponsor of the measure. Around Washington, in think tanks and in interviews with Iran experts, it’s taken for granted that sanctions as a tool aren’t effective. "Most Iran analysts are skeptical that economic pressure will produce the desired results," says Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution. Even a senior Israeli diplomat, who strongly supports sanctions and spoke on condition of anonymity, told The Nation that the world simply isn’t ready to impose the sort of extreme economic measures that just might force Iran’s hand. "The determination of Iran to continue its process seems to me to be more than the determination of the international community to stop it," he said.
Even if they don’t achieve the desired goal, that doesn’t mean sanctions won’t have any effect. Sanctions are guaranteed to strengthen the hand of hawks and hardliners, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who will be able to blame various Great Satans for Iran’s woes. A tighter economic noose will enrich the sanctions-busting smugglers in the IRGC. The additional sanctions will put the United States and Iran back on a path of confrontation, reversing or undoing much of the progress that was achieved by Obama’s outreach to Tehran in 2009. And, worst of all, as it becomes clear over time that the new sanctions have failed to compel Iran to halt its nuclear program, that failure will underline the arguments of hawks in the United States and Israel who say that it’s time for military action against Iran.
The administration’s decision to adopt sanctions—the so-called "pressure track"—is a signal that President Obama has run out of ideas about how to handle Iran.
His effort began with great promise. In 2009 Obama reached out to Iran in his inaugural address; in a taped greeting on Iran’s New Year; in two letters to Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader; and in his June 4 Cairo speech about rebuilding relations with the Muslim world. In so doing, Obama inspired many supporters of the reformist opposition in Iran in advance of the disputed presidential election on June 12. Obama’s opening also led to a series of diplomatic exchanges that culminated in a deal, last October, in which Iran promised to send the bulk of its enriched uranium to Russia and France, where it was to have been reprocessed for civilian-use fuel rods. But that deal fell apart. Inside Iran it fell victim to the poisonous post–June 12 political atmosphere. And in the United States Republican hardliners, neoconservatives and allies of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) made it difficult for Obama to sweeten the deal in order to coax Iran back to the bargaining table.