Iran Sanctions: Not Just Useless but Counterproductive

Iran Sanctions: Not Just Useless but Counterproductive

Iran Sanctions: Not Just Useless but Counterproductive

The new UN sanctions on Iran mark the fourth time that the United States has tried this approach—President Bush tried it thrice. It didn’t work then, and it won’t work now.


The vote by the UN Security Council today to impose a fourth round of UN-backed sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program—the first three were enacted under pressure from President Bush and his administration, including Ambassador John Bolton—are a sign that President Obama has no idea what to do about Iran.

Hint: sanctions ain’t it.

You’ll hear a lot from the Iran-bashing, neoconservative crowd and from the Obama administration itself, especially the State Department, about what a great victory this is. In particular, you’ll hear Obama and the State Department tout the fact that it was Obama’s brilliant effort to win over Russia and China for the sanctions vote that made all the difference. They’ll tell you that Obama contrived to isolate Iran and to persuade Moscow and Beijing to go along with the new sanctions on Iran, when in fact Russia and China succeeded in ensuring that the sanctions imposed by the UNSC are meaningless. And, of course, President Bush did the same thing, three times: despite Bush’s cowboy approach to unilateral hegemonism and unchecked wars abroad, Bush, too, managed to get Russian and Chinese support for three previous votes at the UNSC for sanctions on Iran between 2006 and 2008.

A self-congratulatory statement from the State Department’s office at the UN—i.e., from Susan Rice’s shop—notes that the United States "remains open to dialogue" with Iran, but it goes on to list no fewer than fourteen new or enhanced sanctions on Iran imposed by UNSC Resolution 1929. In fact, none of the sanctions is worth a damn. None of them are "crippling," none of them target Iran’s oil and gasoline imports, none of them have a thing to do with Iran’s real economy, and none of them will do a thing to persuade, compel, or scare Tehran into changing its policy on its nuclear program. (The fact that the sanctions are so mild and meaningless is the direct result of insistence by Russia and China that the sanctions have no impact on Iran’s population.

So, according to the State Department, the sanctions in Res. 1929 ban nuclear and missile investment abroad, ban Iranian access to a range of conventional arms, restrict Iran’s access to ballistic missile technology, provide for nations to inspect ships carrying cargo to Iran, target the Iran’s shipping firm IRISL and its airline for increased "vigilance," and include various measures dealing with finance, including calling on all nations to "prohibit on their territories new banking relationships with Iran, including the opening of any new branches of Iranian banks, joint ventures and correspondent banking relationships, if there is a suspected link to proliferation." In response, Iran is likely to pretend to be outraged, but in fact Tehran is well aware that the sanctions are merely a political statement. No doubt, Iran is unhappy with the fact that neither Russia nor China acted to block or veto Res. 1929. But they won’t accomplish their objective.

President Ahmadinejad is heading to China soon for a high-profile visit to Shanghai, where he may meet with President Hu Jintao. And Iran has been meeting this week in Turkey with the Turks and the Russians. Not that there isn’t some bad blood between Iran and its Asian allies: Miffed at Moscow and Beijing for backing the sanctions, Iran plans to boycott the latest meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Asian proto-alliance linking Russia, China and various central Asian counties in which Iran has "observer" status. Even so, the two big Asian powers aren’t about to let the United States impose harsh new penalties on Iran, and the Iranians know it.

At the security summit in Turkey on Tuesday, the leaders of Iran, Turkey and Russia—including Ahmadinejad and Vladimir Putin—engaged in what the New York Times called a "display of regional power that appeared to be calculated to test the United States just one day before a scheduled American-backed debate in the UN Security Council." At the meeting, Ahmadinejad and Putin held private talks, and Putin said publicly that the UNSC action "should not put Iran’s leadership or the Iranian people into difficulty."

Brazil and Turkey voted against Res. 1929. Earlier this month, Brazil and Turkey engaged in a brilliant diplomatic effort to persuade Iran to go along with the October, 2009, agreement worked out between Iran and United States, in Geneva, but in slightly modified form. The United States is angry at both countries for doing that, since it was seen (accurately) as an effort by the two regional powers to slow down the mad rush to sanctions. The vote by Brazil and Turkey will not endear either country to Hillary Clinton’s heart. In a calculated insult to Brazil and Turkey, the United States today told the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that the diplomatic effort was a bad idea. According to the Los Angeles Times:

The United States told the IAEA The United States told the U.N.’s atomic watchdog on Wednesday that a Brazilian and Turkish effort to resolve the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program failed to address international concerns.


The neocons, of course, are pretending to be overjoyed. Pretending, because the most virulent neoconservatives, such as Bolton, have long argued that the sanctions are useless and meaningless and that they won’t deter Iran. And the neoconservative watchdog group, United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), issued a statement moments after the UNSC vote praising the action but calling for more:

In passing a fourth round of sanctions, the United Nations Security Council has sent a clear message to Iran: the cost of pursuing an illegal nuclear weapons program is international economic isolation. While this is a clear message and an important symbol of the international community’s opposition to Iran’s current policy, it will not be sufficient to halt Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Further action is required in the form of even more meaningful sanctions.


More sanctions are indeed coming, but it’s an open question as to whether they will be "meaningful." Both the United States and the European Union intend to use the UNSC resolution as the starting point for imposing unilateral, non-UN sanctions on Iran, including Treasury Department-sponsored financial sanctions that could target Iran’s Central Bank. And Congress, in its infinite nonwisdom, is likely to pass legislation that will put enormous pressure on the White House to restrict Iran’s supply of imported gasoline and refined petroleum products. (For an analysis of the sanctions push, see my recent article in The Nation.)

Perhaps the saddest reaction to the provocative but useless sanctions resolution came from J Street, the supposedly pro-peace, anti-AIPAC Jewish lobby, which gushed over the resolution:

J Street welcomes the passage of enhanced multilateral and broad-based sanctions on Iran at the United Nations Security Council today.… Today, the Government of Iran hears a clear message from the international community that there are real consequences to continued obfuscation, delay, and intransigence over its nuclear program, as well as real benefits should they fully address international concerns.

The fact is that the resolution will make it harder, not easier to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough on Iran’s nuclear program. That’s because it will make it more difficult for Iran’s fractious leadership to make any conciliatory move without appearing to be caving in to international pressure.

For Obama, who tried to open the door for dialogue with Iran, Res. 1929 is a symbol of his failure. Since military action has been ruled out, the choice are between diplomacy and containment of a post-nuclear Iran. In that choice, the sanctions are irrelevant. But they do make the diplomacy a lot harder. For the administration, the best that can be said is that the sanctions are an effort to buy time, to stave off the Congressional crazies who demand actions such as naval embargos of Iran and the neoconservative lunatics who want to bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb-bomb Iran. Unfortunately, President Obama, it only encourages them.

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