Politics & Policy

The Great Iran Charade

Comedy routines in the inner sanctums of Tehran must begin, "Did you hear the one about the asset freeze?"

Editor’s note: This column is available exclusively through King Features Syndicate. For permission to reprint or excerpt this copyrighted material, please contact kfsreprint@hearstsc.com or phone 800-708-7311, ext. 246.

The rules of the great Iranian nuclear charade are simple: We pretend to punish the Iranians for the nuclear-weapons program that they pretend doesn’t exist.

The Obama administration is about to go to the United Nations Security Council for a fourth round of sanctions. Remember the first three rounds? Models of collective international action, they passed unanimously (with the exception of an abstention by Indonesia in 2008) while Iran spun ever more centrifuges and enriched ever more uranium.

It’s a two-track process. On one track, the West feels as though it’s doing something; on the other, the Iranians advance the nuclear program the West is purportedly doing something about. In the 1930s, when the Italians invaded Abyssinia, opposition leader David Lloyd George remarked of the British government’s belated sanctions: “They came too late to save Abyssinia, but they are just in the nick of time to save the government.” A whiff of the same self-serving ineffectuality pervades sanctions on Iran.

The Obama administration will tout any action by the Security Council as a success. Its reset-hitting diplomacy will have overcome resistance by veto-wielding permanent Security Council members Russia and China. But only at the predictable price of gutting the sanctions it has waited more than a year to get around to moving.

The sanctions won’t be “crippling,” the Obama administration’s old standard, and will hardly even have “bite,” Hillary Clinton’s latest promise. They will be carefully “targeted,” U.N.-speak for “limited to the point of meaninglessness.”

Sanctions against Iran have had an unhappy career. Foreign companies that do proscribed business with Iran employ a variety of ruses — new names, the use of shell companies — to evade bans on trading with U.S. companies, according to a Wall Street Journal account. The New York Times found that foreign and multinational American companies trading with Iran have fattened on a stunning $107 billion in contracts, grants, and benefits from the U.S. government during the past decade.

Comedy routines in the inner sanctums of Tehran must begin, “Did you hear the one about the asset freeze?” The Wall Street Journal reports that, under existing sanctions, the U.S. has frozen “less than $43 million, or roughly a quarter of what Iran earns in oil revenue in a single day.” The Swiss have “frozen only about $1.4 million in Iranian assets — a tiny fraction of the $712 million Swiss companies exported to Iran last year.”

Barack Obama entered office laboring under the misapprehension that only George W. Bush’s belligerence blocked progress with Iran. If we reached out, the mullahs might realize that we meant them no harm and talk in good faith. Failing that, advertising our good intentions to the world would ease the way for those “crippling” sanctions.

For all the time Obama spent in 2008 defending talking with our enemies, he didn’t seem to count on our enemies not necessarily wanting to talk to us. Nor did he realize that demonstrating our niceness wouldn’t lull other countries into abandoning their strategic and economic interests. Even Brazil, a significant exporter of food to Iran that covets a role as an international mediator, has balked at tough measures at the U.N.

The upshot is that Obama has adopted a version of the Bush approach of wheel-spinning negotiations and occasional sanctions, producing the same result: futility.

Both houses of Congress have passed legislation — delayed pending the outcome in the U.N. — to punish companies that export gas and other refined petroleum products to Iran, which is swimming in oil but can’t refine enough of it. This is a much more serious threat, but Iran has been working to minimize its vulnerability by rushing to improve its domestic refining capacity.

The fact is that sanctions are an unwieldy instrument and often fail to achieve their intended goals. All that they may be good for is distracting us from the inevitable. Absent a revolution, there are two ways for the charade to end — with a nuclear Iran, or an Israeli or American military strike. Everything else is commentary.

Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. © 2010 by King Features Syndicate.

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