Sanction Iran's Oil

04/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Iran's announcement that it will enrich uranium to 20% U-235 mocks UN Security Council resolution 1835. As well as resolutions 1803, 1747, 1737, and 1696, all of which demanded over the past three and a half years that Iran stop enriching uranium.

When sanctions on Iran are next discussed at the U.N., the U.S. must break with the past practice of accepting resolutions with broad support but little bite. As President Obama said in his Nobel speech, "sanctions must exact a real price" and be "tough enough to actually change behavior." In the case of Iran, sanctions must target the regime's economic heart: Oil exports.

If international consensus cannot be achieved, unilateral American sanctions can still severely impact Iran's oil exports. Just as Congress has targeted exporters of gasoline to Iran, new legislation should sanction foreign oil companies, shipping companies, insurance providers, banks, oil traders and anyone else involved in purchasing, transporting, financing or refining Iranian oil.

These companies and any of their subsidiaries that continue their involvement with Iranian oil would find our banking system, capital markets, ports, insurance industry and commerce closed to them.

The Obama administration should make clear it will implement these sanctions and force anyone dealing in oil to choose between the U.S. and Iran.

Such sanctions need not disrupt global oil markets. Iranian exports supply only 3 percent of global demand, and Saudi Arabia can replace all of Iran's exports with only half of its spare production capacity. Worldwide, government-controlled strategic petroleum reserves are almost 1.5 billion barrels - more than 20 months' worth of Iranian exports. Private industry oil stocks add another 2.6 billion barrels, bringing total reserves to almost five years' worth of Iranian exports.

America must lead with such harsh sanctions because a nuclear-armed Iran poses a serious risk to our security. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's pledge to wipe Israel off the map is well known, but experts on Iran understand that the Iranian regime considers America, not Israel, its main adversary.

Ayatollah Ali Khameini, Iran's Supreme Leader, has said that conflict with America is "natural and unavoidable" and ascribes many of Iran's problems to sinister American plots. Chants of "Death to America" precede the chants of "Death to Israel" at regime-led rallies.

That Iranian missiles cannot yet reach America is irrelevant. If Iran were to attack the U.S. with a nuclear weapon, it would do so with maximum deniability to reduce the chance of retaliation. Intercontinental missiles have clear return addresses, unlike a nuclear bomb onboard a cargo ship that explodes in an American port. Even if Iran dared not attack the U.S., the nuclear proliferation in the Middle East provoked by an Iranian nuclear weapon capacity would increase the odds of a nuclear or radiological attack by Islamic terrorists.

As news reports from December made clear, the U.S. government appreciates this threat, yet we remain vulnerable. The New York Times reported on December 19 that the Obama administration is changing U.S. nuclear policy to focus on countering nuclear terrorism. One unnamed official called the threat of nuclear terrorism "the first - and in many ways the most urgent for where we are today." Just 17 days earlier, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told a Senate committee that the government will need at least a two-year extension of the 2006 SAFE Ports Act deadline of 2012 to ensure that all U.S.-bound shipping containers from foreign ports are scanned for radiation.

Such scanning may not offer the necessary protection in any case. According to a 2009 Government Accountability Office report, officials in the Department of Homeland Security Domestic Nuclear Detection Office "acknowledge that both the new and current-generation portal monitors are capable of detecting certain nuclear materials only when unshielded or lightly shielded." The report also notes the testing standards did not reflect the kinds of shielding a terror operation would likely use.

Facing such threats, we should be prepared to take responsibility for ending Iran's nuclear weapons program. Europe worries about nuclear proliferation, but not about a nuclear attack on Berlin. Neither China nor Russia wants another nuclear power, yet both have substantial economic relations with Iran. Israel has been overtly threatened by Iran, but military analysts have questioned whether it has the firepower to eliminate Iran's nuclear infrastructure.

America has the economic and military power to counter Iran and is sufficiently threatened by Iran's nuclear weapons program to generate the political will to act.

The Iranian regime values its own survival - but not much else - more than its nuclear program, and its survival rests on two pillars: repression at home and oil revenue from abroad. As the Green Movement challenges the first, we should target the second.

An oil embargo is the toughest sanction available, short of military action, that could change the regime's cost-benefit analysis of its nuclear program. International backing would be welcome, but our bottom line, at the Security Council and domestically, should be the effectiveness of sanctions to end the Iranian nuclear program, not support for them by nations who feel less threatened.

Abraham H. Foxman is National Director of the Anti-Defamation League and author of "The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control."