Opinion

The Great Debate

Obama, Iran and Alice in Wonderland

By Bernd Debusmann
June 11, 2010

Here we go again. That shape-shifting entity known as “the international community” has moved once more to try and stop Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program. In the process, the community shrank by two countries, Turkey and Brazil.

That is the conclusion one can draw from President Barack Obama’s statements on the U.N. Security Council’s vote on June 9 to sanction Iran for failing to halt its production of nuclear fuel. The vote, Obama said, was “an unmistakable message” by the international community and showed its united view on Iran and nuclear arms.

That doesn’t quite square with the fact that Turkey and Brazil, two increasingly important players on the world scene, voted against the 15-member council’s resolution. (Lebanon abstained). But it confirmed an apparent tendency by Western leaders to draw inspiration from Alice in Wonderland (where Iran is concerned).

They echo Humpty Dumpty’s famous assertion on the use of words: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” The modern, Iran-related version: “When I talk about the international community, I mean those who are with me. Neither more nor less.”

The June 9 resolution vote was the fourth on sanctions and the first with “no” votes. In 2006 and 2007 sanctions resolutions passed unanimously. In 2008, one council member, Indonesia, abstained.

Obama termed the new sanctions the most comprehensive the Iranian government had faced but said they did not close the door to diplomacy. If that were to happen, he would serve the cause of international diplomacy by setting an example and burying the over-used and empty phrase “international community” with its misleading implication of global consensus.

The question now is whether the latest set of sanctions will have any more effect on the Iranian nuclear programme than the preceding ones and even Obama expressed doubts: “We know that the Iranian government will not change its behaviour overnight.”

If history is a guide, not overnight and perhaps not ever. According to a landmark study by the Peterson Institute for International Economics first published in 1983 and updated twice, the last time in 2007, economic sanctions through history have much more often failed than succeeded.

SANCTIONS-RESISTANT AUTOCRATS

The authors of the study, led by Gary Hufbauer, looked at 174 sanctions efforts beginning in World War I and found that only 30 percent succeeded in changing the targeted country’s policy in a major way. Autocratic regimes were particularly resistant to sanctions, the study found.

“In Iran, you have a highly autocratic regime with a very effective secret police,” Hufbauer, one of the world’s leading authorities on sanctions, said in an interview.

That means a government that can crush internal dissent, as it did after hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the streets after presidential elections a year ago (June 12) in protest against what they said were elections stolen by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad through massive fraud. Brutal government repression ended months of tumultuous unrest.

The 2007 edition of the Peterson Institute’s study, Economic Sanctions Reconsidered, found that turning the sanctions screw rather than using a hammer is not the most effective method. Turning the screw is what the U.S. and its allies have been doing after Iran’s until-then secret nuclear projects at Natanz and Arak came to light in 2002, courtesy of an Iranian resistance group.

“Political leaders value an incremental approach toward deploying sanctions to avoid immediate confrontation and to justify the subsequent use of force, if all fails. Our analysis continues to stress the opposite. There is a better chance to avoid military escalation if sanctions are deployed with maximum impact,” the study says in reference to the confrontation with Iran.

The latest package of sanctions falls short of maximum impact, largely because Russia and China managed to water down the June 9 resolution, the result of five months of negotiations between them and the United States, Britain and France. As it stands, the compromise sanctions spare Iran’s all-important oil and gasoline imports and barely touch the financial system.

According to Hufbauer, an observation by the Prussian military strategist Helmuth von Moltke is as valid today as it was when he made it in the 19th century: “A coalition is excellent as long as all interests of each member are the same. But in all coalitions the interests of the allies coincide only up to a certain point. As soon as one of the allies has to make sacrifices for the attainment of a large common objective, one cannot usually count on the coalition’s efficacy.”

That applies to the 12 security council members who voted for the sanctions. It applies even more to the chimerical “international community” evoked by Barack Obama.

Comments
17 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Obama, Iran and Alice in Wonderland
Other than cause some minor inconvenience to the guy in the street.
What effect will the sanctions have?
Russia has said it does not affect the sale of defense weapons, and no doubt medical and food supplies are not affected.
So the Queens court can say they are seen to be active.

Posted by The1eyedman | Report as abusive
 

Brent,
The sanctions have failed so far, and therefore the new resolution cannot be considered an achievement for Obama on a realistic scale.

As for labeling Turkey and Brazil “two increasingly important players on the world scene”, it is nonsense, as much as your suggestion that the EU is about to replace the US as the world’s leading economic and political powerhouse, in that article you wrote several months ago, which generated intense debate among Reuters’ readers :)

Posted by yr2009 | Report as abusive
 

Yep. We would happy to see more sanctions, but what we got is still have some benefits:

1. It gives US & Co right to intercept Iran ships. That is very important. With most machinery coming from outside, Iran now has to watch its back.
2. PM Putin said that Russia will not sell S-300 to Iran. That will prevent Iran from kicking out IAEA. IAEA reports provide ground for Israel/USA assessments and cool down Israel temptation to strike.

You may agreed that today politics more and more depends on public opinion. From that perspective US has less concrete gains.
3. US made China & Russia to choose sides.
4. It also put Turkey and Brazil in uncomfortable spotlight.

Posted by sk_usa | Report as abusive
 

The US did not make China and Russia choose sides, Israel did, by explaining to these countries that if the sanctions did not come they would bomb sooner rather than later, and that would disturb their economies. We in the US are slowly being prepared to welcome an attack on Iran. The only thing that will avert one is if the disappearance of scientists and the US efforts to finance any group that wants a different Iran do not bear fruit.

Posted by AmericaninCan1 | Report as abusive
 

“…As it stands, the compromise sanctions spare Iran’s all-important oil and gasoline imports and barely touch the financial system…”

This commentary, for whatever purpose (On to Tehran!™?) includes no context on why Turkey and Brazil abstained (they have already solved the Iranian fuel processing conundrum!); and for why the P5 entertained sanctions in the first place, …that is, because Israel has gone around threatening the likely outcome of unilateral attacks by Israel (e.g. WW3), if those sanctions weren’t imposed!

The sole point of the commentary then is foot-stamping, that Israel didn’t get its way, and we should perforce starve the Iranians into submission, the same way Israel is starving Gazans into either submission or liquidation, so Israel can annex Gaza, and the trillions of cubic feet of natural gas in Gaza’s offshore entitlements, which they have already moved to steal, by demanding delivery of that natural gas go through Israeli ports, for the expedient they won’t have to pay Palestinians for it!

Iran remains alone of the world’s nations with a rich natural resource base, and refusal to allow usury or fractional banking systems of you-know-who, that have clearly bankrupted the entire rest of the world.

Good job, men!

Posted by Chip_H | Report as abusive
 

Of course Iran has “very effective” secret police who were originally trained in torture by the CIA. But it doesn’t follow that they have nuclear capability worth a damn, not such that might justify these trumped-up threats of sanction, any more than the venal allegation that their neighbors in Iraq possessed WMD.

Of course US hawks aren’t going to let any of that stop them from taking the shortest route between CIA and (Shin) Bet, no matter what the cost in human lives and suffering. Not with billions to be made on another senseless war.

Posted by HBC | Report as abusive
 

The sanctions are significant. It seems like Iran is running out of friends. After lobbying for months, they couldn’t get Russia and China to block the UN vote and had to turn to Brazil and Turkey. Everyone knows it’s just a matter of time before the latter countries will run out of patience with Iran as well.

What I don’t understand is, how come Iran just won’t admit that they’re trying to build a bomb? What will they say when they’ve finally built and tested one after years and years of denying that they’re not interested in building one?

Why are the Arab countries just sitting by the sidelines? If there’s one thing worse than Israel it’s a Shiite Iran with the bomb.

Posted by acer456 | Report as abusive
 

I would imagine Iran’s “test” will be conducted over Tel Aviv. Anyone thinking Iran merely seeks regional power is naive, or just plain hoping their leaders are rational human beings. I would think they will say “Mission Accomplished”. Then they will wait for their fictional Mahdi to return before the warheads rain down on themselves.

Posted by LeorionIlinois | Report as abusive
 

As Israel commits more atrocities, year after year, there will be less and less “international community” to support it. Why is Israel allowed to have nukes but not Iran? Just because there is an awful lot of Israeli and Jew money going into the US politicians’ pockets…. I say change the way polical parties are funded in the US and we’d me moving in the right direction to a better world. No one should be allowed to give large sums of money to political parties. That corrupts.

Posted by Pedro07 | Report as abusive
 

The US is trying to avoid an Israeli nuclear strike on Iran ..that is the threat..there is no other way to destroy the Iranian facility and Israel has the capability to do this ….rightly or wrongly Obama walks the tightrope of apeasment trying to avoid this doomsday senario….good luck to the man.

Posted by Mzungo | Report as abusive
 

Astounding that Iran is demonised and sanctions are imposed on them for trying to develop nuclear technology, which they have consistently maintained is for peaceful use, while a country with a clear track record of aggression and irrational behaviour, Israel, is threatening to attack a sovereign nation and nobody bats an eyelid!

Can it get any more ludicrous than this?

Since when is it ok to use threat of an attack on a sovereign nation to get sanctions imposed as Israel has done in lobbying China to vote for sanctions on Iran. Surely the country that is threatening military attacks needs to be censured and warned of severe consequences if they should carry out such attacks. Especially when such an aggressor as Israel is in illegal possession of nuclear weapons and remarkably no western nations have called for accountability of such illegal weapons yet they went to war and killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis on mere suspicion that they possessed such weapons.

Where is the justice?

Where is the even-handedness?

Where is the fairness?

Where is the accountability?

Who are really the evil ones in this whole saga?

Lately the West appears to have taken on the role of being the least moral players on the world scene while Brazil, Turkey, China and Russia appear to be more honest brokers. Pity for China and Russia though, they lost a golden opportunity to reinforce this notion when they voted in favor of more sanctions albeit they were under manipulation by US and Israel.

Posted by MalcolmX | Report as abusive
 

As a layman ,I don’t understand what harm is going to happen if Iran or any other country for that matter , acquire nuclear weapons with their own efforts .It is accepted that nuclear weapons serve the purpose of deterrence and are not to be used against anyone .Surely ,no country will be stupid enough to use such weapons and bring about one’s own annihilation in the process .
It seems that it is more about the pecking order in international affairs .There is no democracy or proper constitution to regulate the conduct among nations and there absolutely is no equality .Some dictate and others obey ,that is the principle .

Posted by mattapparampil | Report as abusive
 

The UN doesn’t listen to US anymore

Posted by GreatRead | Report as abusive
 

@MalcolmX,

Pity for China and Russia though, they lost a golden opportunity to reinforce this notion when they voted in favor of more sanctions albeit they were under manipulation by US and Israel.

You assume that somebody can ‘manipulate’ nations like China & Russia. That implies that 100′s people who work for foreign relations in these countries are … stupid.
Nop. USA/West just ‘paid’ them enough so they stopped supporting Iran.
Russia got 4 modern vessels from France. China got another 3-4 months ‘free’ currency manipulation.

Most people see logic in both Iran rush for nukes as well as Israel gamble to avoid Iran with nukes.
FIY
Iran has more American blood on its hand than any other nations in Meddle East. Iran supports every shia militia in region that fight US in Iraq; NATO in Afghanistan, fight governments in Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq and Said Arabia etc.
Very few people naive enough to see Iran as peaceful nation.

Posted by sk_usa | Report as abusive
 

MalcolmX, calm down.

With respect, just believe in “Truth is stranger than fiction” and you can bring your blood pressure down and add a few more years to your life and maybe by then a miracle will answer all your questions.

Posted by doctorjay317 | Report as abusive
 

its amazing how we wonder why the world is becoming such a mess?? We forget about the radical changes that came about in politics the last 60 to 70 years.

If you see where civilization was heading and where we’re at now, I wonder if we as citizens of the world, through the decades were really aware of what we voted for and how wise it was??

I wonder if the global village will not eventually become a local catastrophy for this planet??

Posted by stevenb | Report as abusive
 

Iran and North Korea need to battle it out. We just launched a Facebook competitor at story+burn.com

Posted by GreatRead | Report as abusive
 

Post Your Comment

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/
  •