Iran sanctions and wishful thinking

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.”


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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The stage is set.

Iran can choose to comply with the request to stop it’s nuclear industry, or it will pick a very dark future.

The UN council is nothing except a massive diplomatic blocking device. It seeks to stop war at any cost. Even if that cost is genocide, nuclear proliferation, or the annexation of parts of Georgia.

If the security council’s actions allow Iran to get a nuke, we will be in for very uncertain times.

Because it will prove that diplomacy does not work, and that unilateral action by the West is the only way to ensure a nation’s compliance with UN demands.

Obama’s only real desire is that this hopefully doesn’t happen in his first term. Because if it does, it means war with Iran.

Posted by John Smith | Report as abusive

Simplistic solutions? Bernd is absolutely correct. We can talk until out jaws fall off and nothing will change. With state control of media in Iran, and indoctrination since birth, the presumption of rationality and assessment of freely available fact is pure fantasy on our part. like Saddam, the only fact and rationality they understand is force. Further, it may take a generation or two afterward to dispel the mindset so deeply ingrained in these peoples by the collaborating grip of state and religion. This is a far more complex matter than the simplistic solutions currently being floated.

Posted by coltrain | Report as abusive

Funny, this administration never seems to engage in “wishful thinking” well at least not according to the sycophantic media. Why don’t we just cut out all this nastiness and hand the Iranians a nuclear weapon? It’s laughable that people think sanctions don’t work, the fact is the sanctions aren’t really enforced by many nations and that repressive regimes always spin them as caused by the outside. Oh well, we’ll soon see what a nuclear armed theocracy run by a cabal of reactionaries is like. Should make the mid east even more fun soon.

Posted by Edward M. Blake | Report as abusive

if Obama is serious about moving MidEast poliices towards any realistic solution, he has to pull Israel out of its nuclear closet first. the time of good old double standards is over.

Posted by Sergey | Report as abusive

It seems difficult for people to comprehend but it’s very likely that Iran will get the bomb. It doesn’t mean the end of the world, it does mean a geopolitical shakeup. Iran is not a mad country willing to annihilate itself, it is a rational player on the global stage and wants what many other countries want, power, influence and status.

The question is how all the players in the Middle East come to terms with this. You can bomb Iran now but it will only strive harder to get the bomb, not to mention solidify national support for the program in Iran whereby the conservatives will get an even stronger grip on the country. Not to mention the consequences to the rest of the world should Israel launch an attack.

Meanwhile, Israel continues to build illegal settlements, carve up the West Bank so no viable Palestinian state is possible. Israel wants the world to believe the two are not related, yet it points fingers at Iran when it comes to Hamas (rightfully). Correction, Israel sees what it sees and wants what it wants.

Having a double standard on nuclear weapons also isn’t cutting it these days. It’s not a unipolar world where one can apply the, “do as i say, not as i do” foreign policy anymore.

If Israel wants peace, it also has to join the international community and withdraw to the’67 borders, dismantle the settlements, tear down the horrific apartheid like wall and work towards giving Palestinians a viable state. Israel is in as much danger as Iran is into giving into the ultra-right wing, religious conservatives.

Posted by Alan T. | Report as abusive

State control of media and indoctrination since birth? Wow, they sound exactly like the USA!
How about leaving Iran alone? Why shouldn’t Iran have a nuclear program, since Israel is nuclear-armed? Why not tell Israel that a price for persuading Iran to give up its nuclear program is for Israel to give up all its nuclear arms and stop making more?

Posted by Roy Fischer | Report as abusive

Like Saddam? Here we go. AIPAC and supporters of Israel seem to have complete tunnel vision and keep trying to sell these apocalyptic visions of the world coming to an end.

Look where Iraq is now. Does Israel care that Iraq turned into a mess? Thousands of civilians dead, thousands of troops dead? Not really, they simply wanted Saddam gone at any cost. The rest of the world, especially the United States meanwhile is paying for the Iraq war.

It’s the same mentality towards Iran, regardless of the consequences to the region and to the world at large, Israel seems not to care so long as it gets what it wants.

Speaking of talking until our jaws fall off, what of the Palestinian issue and the continued illegal building of settlements, the land grabs? The world has continuously denounced these actions yet Israel continuously ignores the rest of the world.

Collaborating grip of state and religion? Are we talking about Israel because it surely applies to Israel as well. Let’s not kid ourselves here.

Yes, the issue is far more complex yet Israel wants to paint a simple apocalyptic vision to the rest of the world in order to further its interests. Fear mongering isn’t going to work.

Posted by Alan T. | Report as abusive

The closest anyone has come to progress on the Iranian nuclear programme appears to have been the Russians’ straightforward insistence that Iran pay her bills on time, or else work stops. It ought not to be beyond the wit of man (oh all right, it’s probably beyond the wit of policy makers!), to craft an approach to enrichment along similar lines.

Posted by Ian Kemmish | Report as abusive

Bernd avoids the tough bit, so what is a reasonable, not so wishful approach to Iran?

Talk seems to do no good.
UN do nothing but talk. So they do just that, no good.
Security Council has repeatedly proven their impotence.

Shall we sit back and wait for the disaster to happen or end the program for them?

I’m not suggesting any easy solutions, just curios if there are any.

Posted by KM | Report as abusive

What is not discussed in “polite circles” is O-I-L. Mess about to much with Iran, they and perhaps a few others turn down or off, the oil…and?????
There is also that little outfit called “China/Russia buds of Iran Inc” that just might get involved.. as they are business pard’s.
We have NO other option but to go diplomatic and hope for the best. We can only hope some fools somewhere do not start shooting up Iran and push us into “them or us” corner.
Sorry for all the “USA tells the world what to do as we lead it” ego’s our there….those days are gone. USA has enough to just try and graciously get out of Iraq and AFG, just might end up another NAM, sans draft of cours as one thing in USA to wave that little imported flag, quite another to serve it in combat for 99.9% of our patriotic citizens.
Whole new world coming, even Fiat, not exactly a big player in USA, now is buying our major firms. Citizens get used to having gone by the “tipping point”.. GWB “tipped USA” and it may have been enough to start us on a decline AKA England…lot’s of talk and that’s about it. The Mid East is no longer playground for USA messing about…

Posted by chuck | Report as abusive

The world wants to see a middle east and a world without nukes and this must include Israel anything short of this would be wishfull thinking and delusional, what is good for the Goose must surely be good for the gander. Iran does not need anyone’s permision to advance itself.

Posted by Gabriel | Report as abusive

It has always seemed a great irony to me that the only nation to have ever used nuclear weapons against a civilian population is at the forefront of insuring that their enemies remain at that disadvantage.

Posted by perry wynn | Report as abusive

I find it hard to believe that intelligent people are advocating more sanctions that clearly do not work. It’s not that not enough sanctions have been tried, it’s that too many have been tried, and have failed, for the threat to have any credibility.
Look at Iraq: much harsher sanctions against a much smaller and much more isolated country failed entirely. They starved the Iraqi people, sure. But did that help the US fulfil any strategic objectives? No. They had to go in and fight it out. And even then they didn’t do so well, did they?
And Iraq didn’t have any levers that it could pull to make America’s life much harder. Unlike Iraq, Iran has massive and critical influence in each of Syria, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. It can credibly threaten Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the GCC and Israel, all American allies. So why would a weapon that failed even against a weak opponent succeed against a much stronger foe? Why would sanctions that failed against a much weaker Iraq and a much weaker North Korea work against Iran? What makes this time so different?

Posted by Firas | Report as abusive

I’m all for a nuclear-free Middle East.

That’s why a nuclear-free Israel — it’s the only nuclear-armed state in the region — is the key first step.

Israel has surreptitiously built dozens — if not hundreds — of nuclear weapons since the 1960s, at one time with the help of the rogue apartheid regime then in power in South Africa.

Let’s have sanctions against Israel until it gives up its nuclear arsenal. At this time, any Iranian nuclear arsenal is merely theoretical. Israel’s atom arsenal is a fact.

Posted by Manny Paltiel | Report as abusive

So, yet another sanction proposal towards a country they don’t like by the AIPAC and pro-Israeli ideologues. Running around the world with their 2×4 to hit whomever they don’t like. (Or 2×2 to hit whomever they like!) For decades, these guys controlled America foreign policy, and wrecked America reputation.

Why do the AIPAC guys have so much hatred, and so scared of Iran nuclear program? Iran, a country so backward they still struggle to produce a nanogram of bomb material after more than a decade of trying. What’s their chance of actually making a tiny little bomb, not to mention deploying it as a weapon? For this the APIAC goes huff and puff looking for yet another war. On a country on the other side of the world. In their twisted minds America still runs the world like the good old days.

Why? Because they are actually citizens of Israel on a biblical crusade. They are not swayed by mere facts, rationality, sense. Trouble is, this time around there is no GW Bush, the fundamentalist idiot, to be kicked around as their toy.

Posted by The Real Deal | Report as abusive

Sanctions don’t work period. Never did, never will. They did nothing to remove Castro from power in Cuba, and Cuba doesn’t even have oil. There always will be somebody willing to buy oil from Iran, and somebody willing to sell to Iran just about anything for the right price.
Neither work negotiations. The whole run-up to WWII was about the French and the Brits reluctantly negotiating with Stalin about mutual defense, the French and the Brits negotiating their separate peace with Hitler, Molotov negotiating carving-up of Europe with Ribbentrop (closely watched over their shoulders by Stalin and Hitler, respectively), and small fries negotiating whatever and with whomever they could. We all know the results of those negotiations.
If somebody doesn’t here’s the brief summary. The first ended nowhere. The next 2 resulted in pacts that Hitler tore apart when he thought the time was right. And the small fries were trampled over without regard to any negotiations that ever took place.
Neither work international treaties and international law. See above the example of how these worked with Hitler. Ahmadinejad is no better than Hitler, just less empowered. Germany was a major power, Iran is just a small fry (but with ambitions to grow into a major power). NPT is not worth the paper it was written on. Iran is a signatory to it, as well as Iraq is and N. Korea was until recently. It didn’t prevent Kim from actually making the bomb, nor it does anything to stop Iran. NPT regime didn’t prevent India and Pakistan from becoming nuclear club members (though neither signed it). And for Saddam not joining the club the world must thank IAF (Israeli Air Force) bombing the crap out of Osiraq, not NPT. Same thing with Syria, another NPT signatory secretly building a reactor with N. Korean assistance, and another successful IAF raid demolishing it.
Any treaty is worth something only when it can be realistically enforced. And the best ways of enforcement are either mutual interest, or use of force (or a credible threat thereof). There’s no mutual interest between USA and Iran, at least not one Iran would value above the nukes. And the use of force doesn’t seem to be on the table. In that respect, Obama is no Reagan, not even Bush (Sr. or Jr. – both fought wars when they saw fit).
The best way to deal with Iran would be a regime change. No, not democracy building – that was Bush’s miserable failure after the war with Iraq was brilliantly won (in terms of conventional armed conflict between states). There must be a son of late Shah (or a nephew, or somebody remotely related to the house of Pahlavi) who would gladly accept the scepter and build the state according to local traditions (of which democracy is a very small, if any, part, and brutality is a large part). But that seems to be too improbable for as long as Obama occupies the White House.
Nuclear Iran is the worst nightmare for the West since the days of Cold War, if not WWII. Not only Israel, most of Europe is within the range of Iranian missiles. While Israel has a half-backed Arrow anti-missile system theoretically capable of intercepting the ballistic nuclear warheads, Europe has no defense at all. Besides, Iran controls most of oil used by EU, and closure of shipping routes will trigger a total paralysis of Europe energy and transport systems.
Looks like Europe is impotent to act on its own, and with Obama not inclined to use, or even threaten the use of force, the only real hope for the West is IAF.

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

The reason that sanctions don’t work in the Middle East is, like we found with Iraq there is so much money there; businesses and member nations are under great temptation not to honor the sanctions.
It is apparent that the United States is the only country that sees UN resolutions as having any meaning and the only country that tries to enforce sanctions.
Until other nations start to enforce sanctions instead of taking advantage of the increased prices and continuing to do business with sanctioned nations the sanctions will never work.

Posted by Craig Coal | Report as abusive

Hopefully I’ll live long enough to see my country (U.S.) not wasting my tax donations and all of our time in trying to be the world’s hall monitor.

I wish we were as motivated in our nuclear program as Iran is, then maybe we could all afford our energy bills.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

Sanctions won’t work. Iran is building a new pipeline to India, China and Pakistan. They will have the money to continue.
Now let’s stop looking at this through Oil colored glasses. If you were in charge of Iran and you watched the US invade and take over Iraq Oil fields and listened to the crap coming out of the Bush Administration about Syria, and Korea and saw how the world treats countries with nukes (Korea vs Iraq) wouldn’t you be trying to build a nuke to protect your sovereignty? The only reason this is even an issue is Oil. No one seems to care that Brazil claims to have enriching techniques and equipment that surpass the US. So why are the countries in this tiny region so different? Iran, like Syria and pre invasion Iraq do not do business with the big oil companies like Exxon, or BP. These oil companies want access to their oil in the worst way.

The American People do not have any reason to care if Iran gets a nuke or not. Except that fear mongers have scared you into thinking that if Iran gets a nuke the next thing you know your city will be engulfed in a mushroom cloud.

Now if Iran wanted weapons grade bomb material they could get it without building reactors. But they do not want to build just a few bombs. They want to make sure that Israel will not attack them again, that the US and their oil mercenaries will not invade and take their oil and gas. And, of course those in power hate to be deposed. Ask the Bank CEOs.

As long as oil is profitable there will be those that want what they do not have and wars will be waged for fun and profit. If you want the Middle East to become nothing more than a shrug of the shoulder again you have to crash the price of oil well below $30 a barrel. The US would have to actually start pumping all that oil we have and really start converting our transportation industry off of Oil. This will not happen until the Auto Industry stops playing around with hybrids and starts looking into alternative transportation motivation. Batteries are too heavy and costly but the current Auto Industry seems to want to continue down that road at the consumer’s detriment and the oil company’s delight. Of course I do not see this administration nudging them in any other direction.

So will Iran get a nuke? No time soon. Israel will preemptively strike. The oil companies who do not want their oil glowing green will force the US and GB with their allies into action and the oil wars will continue. Or will the people finally say enough is enough and force congress to put a stop to it. This current economic situation may be just what the Oil Wars needed, lots of young people graduating and out of work ripe for the recruiter’s pitch.

Posted by B.Free | Report as abusive

Hello Bernd,

Sanctions don’t work? It really depends on what do you expect from sanctions.
If you expect regime change – sanctions failed and will never work.

I hope we agree on main point: Iran influence is not positive.

I see sanctions somewhat working by reducing Iran influence.

1. They cripple Iran development;
2. They denying Iran military advances;
3. They reducing Iran ability to bank roll many US adversaries Iraq insurgence/HEZBOLLAH/HAMAS/Afghanistan pro-Iran mujaheddins etc.

Iran is big and potentially very rich country.

1. Sanctions Iran prevent from refine own oil that cost Iran a lot.
2. Iran infrastructure falls apart, roads, electrical grid, aircrafts etc.
(Russia/China also don’t jump to propel this country to XXI century)

3. Iran pushes hard to develop own weapons. All types missiles/drones/nukes etc. Today Iran pays 3x times price for second hands Russian/China technology. But the biggest point Iran doesn’t have access to western precision machinery, precision tools and know-how.

I have to give Iran credit that despite sanctions she made big progress on weaponry, political influence and covered ops like HEZBALLH/Iraq/HAMAS.

But I have little doubts that without sanctions Iran will do exactly the same just on much much bigger scale.

I got impression that so feel the rest of the World.


Posted by SKV_USA | Report as abusive