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Squeezing Iran

On Tuesday, the five members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany agreed to a new round of sanctions, including a travel ban on key Iranian individuals, limits on businesses and military branches involved in nuclear activities, and the monitoring of banks and other institutions implicated in Iran’s nuclear program. While the forthcoming resolution merely adds stronger monitoring to previous sanctions, it achieves a unified western front against Iran and establishes a diplomatic platform for future resolutions, as necessary.

This represents progress. (I disagree with Gordon on this point.) As Norman Podhoretz argues, it indicates that the National Intelligence Estimate may not be as damaging as previously thought. Indeed, rather than derailing the U.S.-led effort to thwart Iran’s pursuit of nuclear capabilities, the NIE simply convinced our allies that a military strategy against Tehran had been put on the back-burner, thus refocusing efforts towards a strengthened diplomatic strategy.

Yet two key hurdles remain in insuring the effectiveness of these new sanctions. First, Russia has downplayed their seriousness, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov saying that the forthcoming resolution will not require tough measures against Tehran other than calling for “countries to be vigilant in developing trade, economic, transport and other relations with Iran so that these relations are not used to transfer illegal, banned materials that can be used in nuclear affairs.”

Second, the new sanctions may have little consequence for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s domestic standing, which will face a major test when Iranians vote in the March parliamentary elections. Over 70 percent of the reformist candidates have been disqualified, making it difficult for Iranians to hold Ahmadinejad accountable for his failed economic policies. It is thus hardly surprising that Ahmadinejad’s response to the announcement of new sanctions was typically defiant, indicating that increased isolation might yield few domestic consequences.

Still, courting the Iranian public provides one strategy forward. As the Washington Institute’s Mehdi Khalaji reports, a low voter turnout will significantly undercut the regime’s legitimacy. At Davos, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice thus wisely declared Iranians “a proud people with a great culture,” vowing expanded trade should Iran end its enrichment of uranium. Yet Russia’s narrow interpretation of the sanctions threatens to undermine the authority of these appeals, mitigating the political damage that Ahmadinejad might incur on account of them. Bottom line: keep an eye on Moscow.


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