The latest round of U.N. sanctions against Iran will not stop that nation’s rulers from acquiring a nuclear arsenal. It could in fact help them acquire one. That is the likely outcome if President Obama does not revise his Iran policy.
The resolution, approved yesterday, achieved the following. Forty persons associated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the fanatical entity that oversees Iran’s nuclear program and is a power base for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei, had been targeted by previous sanctions; they, and a new 41st, will now face a travel ban and asset freeze. U.N. member states will be required to inspect planes and ships going to or coming from Iran if they suspect that these vessels contain banned cargo (yet the resolution provides no authorization for the forcible boarding of such vessels). Iran will not be allowed to invest — in any country — in uranium mines, enrichment plants, or similar facilities. And there will be a ban on the sale of many types of weapons systems, including any ballistic missiles capable of delivering a nuclear payload, to Iran.
This is all to the good, but it is a highly limited good. Most of the measures are little more than modest escalations of earlier sanctions resolutions, of which there have been three. These failed utterly to modify the Iranian state’s conduct; rather, the mullahs doubled down, ever adding to their number of centrifuges. They are now enriching uranium to a level of 20 percent purity — lower than the 90 percent needed to manufacture an atomic warhead, but 90 percent is by no means beyond their powers. The consensus is that if Iran enriched its existing stockpile to this level, it would have enough fissile material for two bombs. It has obtained plans for a warhead and experimented with warhead design.
The United States had sought a tougher sanctions resolution, one that targeted Iran’s banking sector, oil exports, and gasoline imports (Iran imports gas because it lacks sufficient infrastructure to meet its refining needs, although, fearing sanctions, it is correcting the problem). But Russia and China — especially China, now Iran’s largest trading partner — objected to these proposals. Their negotiating position has always been that sanctions must be narrowly focused on Iran’s nuclear program, and must not interfere with its everyday trade and economy.
Securing Russian and Chinese agreement even to the latest watered-down resolution took months of delicate negotiations, and this alone should reveal the limits of the sanctions approach. It is true, and helpful, that the resolution provides diplomatic cover for states to take unilateral action against Iran. Our own efforts in this sphere proceed. A bill that would target, among other things, Iran’s gasoline imports is currently in conference and will soon reach President Obama’s desk. Independently, Stuart Levey, under secretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, has persuaded many foreign companies and financial institutions to have no dealings with various Iranian banks. He should redouble these efforts, even targeting Iran’s central bank: The U.N. resolution speaks of the need for “vigilance” in dealing with it, and while this language does not bind member states to take any particular action, it may help them acquiesce to U.S. pressure.
What is to be hoped is that such efforts, combined with a sign from the United States that its patience is exhausted, will succeed where the former U.N. resolutions have failed. This hope is not especially realistic. It is undermined not only by a history of Iranian intransigence, but by the reality that many nations think it serves their economic or geostrategic interests to befriend Tehran. (See here, most recently, the strange and unsuccessful efforts of Turkey and Brazil to broker a deal by which Iran’s uranium would be sent to Turkey for enrichment and then returned.) That said, the exhausting of the sanctions effort is both a necessary precondition of the military option that Obama is not likely to contemplate and a diplomatic tool in its own right: If it is made clear that the sanctions effort fast approaches its terminus, the stakes for Iran instantly become higher.
So Obama should make it clear. The greatest danger now is a continuation of the status quo, in which the “international community” passes a round of not-very-serious sanctions, Iran rebuffs them and charges ahead on its nuclear program, and the diplomats then threaten it with more of the lackluster same. What is dangerous about this situation is that it simultaneously buys time for Iran and dissipates the feeling that a crisis requiring urgent action is upon us. Obama has spoken as though direct talks with Iran were a goal in and of themselves — rather than one of several possible means to the real goal, which is Iran’s compliance with its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. If this latter is something to which Obama is indeed committed, he should signal unambiguously that we are at the end of the U.N. road, and that what lies beyond it is up to Iran.
But he is not that kind of president.