Politics & Policy

The Iran Difference

Given Barack Obama’s tendency to speak in abstractions, it’s easy to forget how different his administration would look from a John McCain presidency. But on Monday, McCain helped voters remember, by outlining some of the tough measures he would take against Iran.

Speaking to a gathering hosted by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the main U.S. pro-Israeli lobbying group, McCain vowed to seek new economic penalties against the mullahs. He favors sanctioning the Central Bank of Iran, freezing the assets of regime leaders and imposing a visa ban on them, and restricting Iran’s ability to import gasoline. He also said: “We should privatize the sanctions against Iran by launching a worldwide divestment campaign” — much like the campaign against South Africa in the 1980s, in protest of its apartheid government.

These measures would likely have different degrees of efficacy. The U.S. has long imposed unilateral economic sanctions against Iran, banks included. The EU, for its part, has been more willing to deal with Iran, which in turn has done much to keep the regime afloat. But in recent days the EU has hinted at its readiness to freeze the assets and funds of Iran’s state-owned Bank Melli. It’s unlikely that Europe would be equally willing to punish Iran’s central bank, but, even if it is not, the U.S. has additional arrows in its quiver.

It could, for instance, invoke Section 311 of the Patriot Act — which would allow the Treasury Department to effectively freeze Iran out of the international financial system. This is the same provision that the U.S. invoked against a Macanese bank accused of laundering money for Kim Jong Il. The consequence: Banks all over the world suddenly refused to have dealings with Kim’s regime, even through a proxy, for fear that sanctions would be expanded to cover them. Section 311 has been invoked seven times since the Patriot Act’s passage, but never against an Iranian entity. McCain should make a point of asking why.

McCain’s calls for targeted sanctions against regime leaders extend by degree the type of sanction already imposed by the U.N. Security Council over Iran’s refusal to cease enriching uranium. Such targeted sanctions have the advantage of not punishing Iran’s population for the sins of its rulers. This is also their disadvantage: They can do little to foment popular revolt against the regime (something that, in Iran’s case, may require very little fomenting indeed — anti-regime protests are regular, and occasionally shut down Tehran and other large cities). But we should certainly welcome any effort to make life harder for officials of the Iranian government.

As for preventing Iran’s gasoline imports, that is the McCain proposal with the sharpest teeth. Iran is such an economic basket case that it must import some 25 percent of its refined gasoline, despite sitting atop one of the biggest crude-oil reserves in the world. The regime spends about $5 billion per year doing so (which of course invites the question: Why does it feel that building nuclear reactors is more important than building refineries?). Blocking its gasoline imports would cripple the country, provoke widespread unrest, and greatly ratchet up pressure on the regime.

Of course, sanctions on gasoline imports will have teeth only if they are enforced. In practice, this might well require blockading the Persian Gulf, by which most of Iran’s gasoline is imported. (Iran receives a share of its gas via mainland pipelines, but this share is small.) A blockade would likely be regarded by the mullahs as an act of war, and could provoke just that. As such, it should be placed among the options of last resort. McCain did not call for a blockade, but he is right to put the question of gasoline imports on the table.

He is right to do so because, in this case, effective diplomacy is tough diplomacy. We can all agree that it is best to counter the Iranian threat without resorting to force of arms, if lesser measures can be effective. What McCain’s likely general-election opponent seems not to understand is that arms become less necessary to the degree that these lesser measures are invoked, and the threats associated with them believed. Barack Obama has said he favors unconditional negotiations with Iran’s rulers. These same rulers have said they will not change their plans for us, and their actions show they mean it. (Specifically: They charge full speed ahead on uranium enrichment, despite a U.N. Security Council resolution demanding that they stop.) What could Obama the Diplomat say to change their minds, if he is not willing to make clear that they will be punished for defiance?

The threat posed by Iran is severe and metastasizing. We have every reason to believe the regime seeks nuclear weapons. We know it has a history of sponsoring and executing terrorist acts. (Speaking of which, didn’t Barack Obama vote against designating its Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist entity?) We see plainly that negotiation without penalty has not worked: For years the European Union pursued this tack, even as Iran grew closer to having the capacity to manufacture a nuclear weapon. What John McCain offers is diplomacy backed up by credible threats. What Barack Obama offers is appeasement at worst and naïveté at best. It will be good for John McCain, good for America, and good for the world if McCain continues to explain the difference.

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