Iran sanctions and wishful thinking

By
May 7, 2009

Bernd Debusmann - Great Debate
– Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

So what’s so difficult in getting Iran to drop its nuclear program? All it needs is a great American leader who uses sanctions to break the Iranian economy so badly that popular discontent sweeps away the leadership. It is replaced without a shot being fired.

That simplistic solution to one of the most complex problems of the Middle East was part of a keynote speech greeted with thunderous applause by 6,000 delegates to the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The speaker: Newt Gingrich, a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and a likely Republican presidential candidate in 2012.

In the fourth month of the administration of President Barack Obama, who favors talking to America’s adversaries rather than ousting them, the Gingrich prescription sounded like a throwback to the days when neo-conservatives predicted that the U.S. troops invading Iraq would be pelted with flowers and sweets. Wishful thinking at its finest.

But in panel discussions and forums at AIPAC, one of the most powerful lobby groups in the United States, the idea of sharply tightened sanctions had plenty of proponents. The preferred lever: cutting off gasoline supplies to Iran, which relies on imports for around 40% of its domestic consumption.

On the final day of the conference this week, several thousand AIPAC activists converged on Congress to press their representatives for passage of pending legislation to sanction companies that sell, ship, finance or insure gasoline exports to Iran. Firms that continued dealing with Iran would be banned from doing business with the U.S.

Would an additional layer to a stack of sanctions imposed since 1995 get the Iranians to drop what the West insists is work toward a nuclear bomb? There is no reason to believe it would. There is every reason to believe more sanctions would inflict hardship on the Iranian people.

“With all the economic pain sanctions have imposed on the Iranian economy, there has not been a single instance in which that pain has translated into a desirable change in the Iranian government’s policies,” Trita Parsi, the president of the Washington-based National Iranian American Council, told a congressional hearing last month. “The Iranian people have suffered the brunt of the economic pressures.”

A MATTER OF NATIONAL PRIDE

That tends to be the case with most sanctions that seek to change a government’s behavior or its ouster. A case in point closer to Washington than Tehran — Cuba. Almost five decades of U.S. economic sanctions have failed to bring down Fidel Castro or the brother who succeeded him.

Iran introduced gasoline rationing in June, 2007, a move that sparked riots in Tehran, with angry citizens setting ablaze gasoline stations. It was one of the most visible demonstrations of anger against the Iranian government since President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad took office in 2005.

But by and large, say Trita and other Iran experts, a good deal of the people’s anger over economic duress is directed against the United States, more so because the nuclear program has become a matter of national pride. It enjoys such broad public support that no politician running for office would risk advocating its termination.

So it would be naïve to expect public Iranian concessions on the nuclear front before the June 12 presidential elections. Registration for candidates opened this week and Ahmedinejad is expected to run for another four-year term. His most serious challenger to have announced his candidacy so far is a moderate, Mirhossein Mousavi, who was prime minister during the Iran-Iraq war from 1980 to 1988.

When he campaigned for the presidency and announced he was prepared to open a dialogue with Iran, Barack Obama said he would do so without “self-defeating preconditions.” But he also spoke in favor of sanctions, including the idea of throttling gasoline supplies. Overall strategy is still a work in progress.

As far as “self-defeating preconditions” go, setting an August deadline for Iran to curb its nuclear program, as did Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman this week, must surely rank at the top of the list. It’s an either-or proposition which makes a mockery of the word diplomacy.

It remains to be seen whether Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insists on that timeline when he meets Obama in Washington on May 18. So far, they don’t seem to be of one mind on Iran, an absolute priority for Netanyahu, part of intertwined Middle East problems (including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) for Obama and his team.

Robert Satloff, head of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israeli think tank, put it in stark terms at an AIPAC panel discussion when speakers were asked to predict the state of U.S.-Israeli relations in a year’s time: “I fear that if we and the Israelis are not totally on the same page from A to Z on this issue…next year we may be dealing with the most serious face-to-face disagreement in the 61 years of this relationship.”

Next year, if not before.

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