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Nothing Says Lack of Imagination Better Than Sanctions

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Last week Secretary of Defense Robert Gates accused Tehran of "stiffing the international community" by failing to hold up its end of the October United Nations agreement. Iran, of course, had agreed to send low-enriched uranium to Russia and then France. In return, it would receive uranium that was highly enough enriched to run a reactor producing medical isotopes.

Gates wasn't rattling the national saber, though, with his colloquial turn of phrase. Military action, he said, would only slow down, not halt, Iran's nuclear program (however he perceives it). Instead, Gates was trotting out that old scourge sanctions.

Sure enough, by an overwhelming margin, the House of Representatives approved sanctions legislation aimed at depriving Iran of gasoline. But the Senate has yet to vote and, in fact, the administration would prefer to hold out for multilateral, rather than unilateral sanctions (as in the House bill).

In the interim between Gates's comments and the passage of the bill, Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki volunteered to hand over 400 kilograms of uranium in exchange for an equivalent amount of enriched material traded up front. According to Mottaki, the "remainder of the material would be traded over 'several years.'"

But the agreement had called for Iran to hand over all 1,200 kilograms in one batch. The idea on the part of the West was to reduce the amount of uranium remaining in Iran to a level which was insufficient to enrich for military purposes. Iran's offer, a "desperation" move, in the words of Steve Hynd of Newshoggers, proved too little too late. Recent reports, however questionable their provenance, that Iran is working on the trigger for a nuclear bomb couldn't have helped.

If Iran really doesn't plan to develop nuclear weapons, as it continues to assert, why does it insist on retaining that much uranium? Experienced Iran observer Gareth Porter explains that its removal ...

... would deprive Iran of the bargaining leverage [it has] so painfully accumulated in the form of its LEU [low-enriched uranium] stocks. Senior Iranian national security officials had acknowledged in informal conversations that their main purpose in accumulating low-enriched uranium was to compel the United States to sit down and bargain seriously with Iran. They had observed that ... before the enrichment program began, the United States exhibited no interest in negotiations.

Sanctioning (v. authorizing) Sanctions (n. penalty)A professor of law and former attorney for the U.S. government named Orde F. Kittrie makes the case for sanctions at Arms Control Today. He declares: "Strong international sanctions on Iran have yet to be tried." Thus far, Kittrie writes, they consist of:

(1) a ban on supplying Iran with various nuclear and ballistic missile items and technology, (2) a freeze on overseas assets of a few dozen named Iranian officials and institutions, (3) a ban on the export of arms by Iran, and (4) a ban on the overseas travel of a handful of Iranian officials.

Furthermore, he maintains, sanctions on Iran are far from the level of, for instance, those imposed on Yugoslavia during the Bosnia crisis. In fact, he calls them "a missed opportunity because Iran's heavy dependence on foreign trade leaves it potentially highly vulnerable to strong economic sanctions."Which, no doubt, would hit the Iranian man on the street hard. But Kittrie's as quick with a response to that question as former Secretary of State Madeline Albright was when she was questioned about the effect of sanctions on innocent Iraqis. Kittrie declared, "We think the price is worth it." Kittrie writes:

... whatever harm the Iranian people might incur ... would pale in comparison to the humanitarian costs ... of an Iranian nuclear arsenal [which] would almost certainly embolden Iran to increase its sponsorship of deadly terrorism, [cause] nuclear proliferation in the Middle East [and] increase the risk of a nuclear 9/11.

For the sake of argument, what forms would strengthened sanctions take? First of all, Kittrie explains, Europe needs to match our level of embargo (the principal form of sanctions prohibiting commerce). This "would almost immediately bring the Iranian economy to its knees." (We get it, Professor. You mean business.)

Furthermore, squeezing "Iran's gasoline imports would remind the Iranian people that instead of investing in oil refining capacity [its] government has chosen to invest in a nuclear program that is contrary to international law, is economically inefficient, and has resulted in ... sanctions targeting Iran."

Iranians blaming their own government for sanctions imposed by the West? At least it's not as far outside the realm of reality as hawks who believe that, were we to bomb Iran, its citizens would rise up against its government en masse.

Sanctions Unsanctioned

Also at Arms Control Today, Jim Walsh, Thomas Pickering, and William Luers disagree that a joint U.S.-Europe embargo would, in Kittrie's words, "bring the Iranian economy to its knees." Indeed, they write that ...

... the Iranian nuclear case presents a particularly tough challenge for sanctions ... With a declining global supply of oil, countries such as China will not agree to do the one thing that would most affect Iran's economy: refuse to buy its oil. [Besides Iran] can build centrifuges faster than others can impose sanctions.

It's not that they're entirely closing the book on sanctions, which, they write ...

... can be a complement to negotiation. [But the] historical record suggests that the most probable scenario is one in which Iran agrees to a negotiated settlement [that includes] enhanced transparency and new arrangements for some fuel cycle activities. [It] would be a mistake to assume in advance ... that negotiations will fail. [But] one senses in the strongest advocates of sanctions and deadlines an almost religious faith that negotiations will fail and that, ultimately, Iran will acquire nuclear weapons.

Steve Hynd seconds that (emphasis added):

... the narrative the Beltway foreign policy elite have imposed upon the whole process is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Indeed, one of the most thorny problems so far has been that Iran has been pretty sure that America and its allies didn't really want a deal either, and were just going through the motions before an attack could be justified to the world.

Walsh, Pickering, and Luers again:

... an assumption that Iran is going nuclear can lead decision-makers to miss the signals and signs when a negotiated settlement is actually possible. [The United States and Europe] should avoid all-or-nothing gambles, artificial deadlines and a preoccupation with tactics.

At Huffington Post, Democracy Arsenal's Patrick Barry points out another problem with sanctions:

In testimony before the Senate Banking Committee in October ... Undersecretary of the Treasury Stuart Levey expressed concern that unilateral sanctions would undermine efforts to impose 'smart sanctions' on the Iranian regime. "[N]ot only do we want to have the impact on the economy, we want to make sure that [the sanction] is going to affect the decision making in Iran and not target the wrong people."

At Foreign Policy, Jamsheed K. Choksy writes: "The targeting of assets, communications, and mobility was deployed successfully against the leadership of al Qaeda in the wake of 9/11." He explains how, ideally, a similar program might succeed against Iran:

The time has come to utilize sanctions sparingly [and] strategically ... Financial, travel, communication, and legal restrictions could be placed against Iranian leaders, their immediate families, prominent political supporters, business partners, scientists, [etc., who] seek nuclear weapons, fund terrorism ... and trample on basic rights ... Their personal and organizational bank accounts outside Iran can be frozen ... [Movement] beyond Iran could be restricted by international arrest warrants for human rights violations. [Among those] warranting these types of sanctions include Iran's supreme leader, [the] president ... the Guardian Council [and] the Revolutionary Guard. ...

Meanwhile ...

Individuals rising up against the theocracy will benefit from an easing of current sanctions that restrict their ability to communicate, access technology, travel ... If international action is directed specifically against high-ranking Iranian individuals and corporations causing internal repression and external strife, rather than the Iranian people as a whole, those sanctions will send an unmistakable, tangible, message that the world seeks to be just and fair.

Dislodging Israel's Nuclear-Weapons Program From Iran's Craw

Thus the failure of imagination with sanctions isn't across the board. It's true that such a program might succeed in coercing Iran to cease and desist its nuclear program (if not its internal repression). But the hostility -- and sense of injustice at the thwarting of its nuclear program -- on the part of Iran's government will linger.

For example, anyone who can't understand why Tehran -- not to mention the Iranian street -- wouldn't resent Israel's don't ask-don't tell nuclear-weapons program is as guilty of a failure of imagination as those to whom sanctions are inevitable. After all, Israel has signed no international nuclear conventions, like Iran has the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Its facilities crawling with IAEA inspectors on a recurring basis.

The United States is finally demonstrating some palpable leadership on disarmament. But it needs to go the extra mile and strong-arm Israel into taking its first step: coming clean about its open secret of a nuclear weapons program. Otherwise, along with its treatment of the Palestinians, Israel's nuclear-weapons program will remain an insurmountable barrier to nonproliferation, as well as lasting peace, in the Middle East.

First posted at the Faster Times.