Commentary Magazine


Containment Is Coming

Two reports today strengthen the argument of those who suspect that sanctions on Iran are too little, too late, and that they are simply another stall for the Obami –  who are slow-walking toward containment. First, we learn that foreign investors are continuing to bolster the Iranian economy:

Forty-one foreign companies had some form of commercial activity in Iran’s energy sector over the past five years, despite American laws that could prompt U.S. sanctions against such firms, according to U.S. government auditors.

The report, to be released Thursday by the Government Accountability Office, found that some of the companies are headquartered in some of the U.S.’s closest allies, including Japan and South Korea. A similar GAO study conducted three years ago found half as many companies involved in Iran’s energy sector.

The GAO doesn’t say whether the companies are violating U.S. law but it’s obvious that, to date, we’ve been spectacularly unsuccessful in squeezing Iran. (“The report is likely to add fuel to arguments made by congressional critics that the U.S. isn’t doing enough to punish companies doing business with Tehran.”) Will new international sanctions be any more successful in isolating the regime? Highly unlikely, especially since the most exacting (e.g., restricting sales of refined petroleum) ones are not even under consideration.

Then the Washington Post helpfully assists the administration in laying the groundwork for containment:

After months of first attempting to engage Iran and then wooing Russia and China to support new sanctions against the Islamic republic, the Obama administration appears within reach of winning a modest tightening of U.N. measures targeting Tehran. But administration officials acknowledge that even what they call “crippling” sanctions could prove ineffective in keeping Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

That stalemate, in the view of many analysts, means that a strategy of containing Iran is inevitable — diplomatic isolation backed by defense systems supplied to Persian Gulf allies.

The reporter then dutifully lines up a whole slew of containment advocates, with one lonely note of criticism from the other side. (“So far, said Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations, the pressure has ‘cost the Iranian economy but not affected Iranian decision-making.’ But he warned that containment will be ‘hard and difficult and may require the use of force to enforce red lines.’” Translation: it won’t work.)

But, but, but . . . Obama said a nuclear-armed Iran would be unacceptable. How could this be that we’re now throwing our hands in the air? Ah, those who took Obama literally — assuming Obama meant that we would not accept an nuclear-armed Iran — missed the “nuance.” Unacceptable plainly doesn’t mean unacceptable. You see, it’s the only option now — the gurus tell us:

Shahram Chubin, director of research at the Geneva Center for Security Policy, said the accumulation of sanctions is “exacting a price on the Iranians, but it is not going to change its policies.” Iran may make what he called “tactical overtures” — such as indicating renewed interest in a proposed swap of nuclear material desperately needed for a medical research reactor in Tehran. But such overtures would not indicate a shift in its intention to acquire nuclear expertise, he said.

Chubin said the United States and its allies are gambling on the unexpected occurring. “We are trying to buy time so something can happen. But what could that something be?” he said. “One should do as much as you can do to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. But at the end of the day, this may well be the case that whatever you do makes it worse.”

For months, many of us have been predicting that this is precisely where the administration is heading. They never had a Plan B to engagement — at least not a viable one. Now, the Congress, the American people, Israel, and its supporters will have to decide how to respond to this outrageous abdication of American responsibility.