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Beyond Sanctions

There was bipartisan praise for the sanctions resolution that emerged from the long-delayed House-Senate conference committee. AIPAC cheered the passage of the “toughest sanctions ever passed.” Its news release asserted:

The new legislation seeks to exploit Iranian economic vulnerabilities in order to persuade Iran’s regime to curtail its nuclear ambitions and support of terrorism. CISAD [the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act] explicitly targets the Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), requiring financial sanctions on entities that facilitate any IRGC activity. CISAD also mandates broad financial sanctions on any entity involved with Iran’s nuclear weapons program or support for terrorism. CISAD seeks to limit investments in Iran’s energy sector by sanctioning offending companies and barring them from federal contracts. The bill presumes denial of export licenses to countries permitting sensitive technology diversions to Iran. CISAD also prohibits U.S. nuclear technology export licenses to any country assisting Iran’s nuclear weapons pursuit.

CISAD provides the President with a narrow diplomatic window to significantly curb Iran’s refined petroleum imports and its ability to expand its own refinery operations; if diplomacy fails, the President must impose sanctions on companies in violation of CISAD.

But what do sanctions really mean at this stage? Not all that much, as this report explains:

Senior US officials have acknowledged that newly imposed sanctions against Iran would not be enough to end its quest for nuclear capabilities, but told Congress that the approach was bearing fruit.

“It will certainly not change the calculations of the Iranian leadership overnight, nor is it a panacea,” William Burns, under-secretary for political affairs at the State Department, said of US-backed sanctions passed by the UN Security Council earlier this month during testimony Tuesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “But it is a mark of the potential effect that Iran has worked so hard in recent months to avert action in the Security Council and tried so hard to deflect or divert the steps that are now under way.”

And the administration still wishes to see changes to the sanctions deal:

“We will continue to work with the Congress over the coming days as it finalizes work on this important bill, and in our ongoing efforts to hold Iran accountable,” said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs in a statement.

The administration has long had reservations that the legislation would restrict the president’s ability to provide exemptions to countries considered helpful on international sanctions and which he would not want to alienate.

“It is no secret that our international partners contain their enthusiasm for extra-territorial applications of US legislation, and that’s why we continue to work closely with you and your colleagues to try to ensure that the measures are going to be targeted in a way that maximizes the goal here,” Burns told the Senate panel.

So to sum up, we have UN sanctions and are on the verge of passing unilateral sanctions. What we don’t have is an effective, timely means of thwarting Iran’s nuclear program. As Jamie Fly of the Foreign Policy Initiative explained via e-mail, “The bottom line with this is that it is good it is finally moving and will become law, but in reality, the impact will be minimal.”

We had other options — vigorous support for the Green Movement, a full-court press to isolate Iran diplomatically, and the use of force (or the realistic threat of force) — but instead Obama chose prolonged “engagement” and sanctions that are unlikely to slow progress on Iran’s nuclear program.

The administration must now be pressed to answer two questions: how will we know if sanctions are working? And what are we prepared to do if they don’t? One suspects the administration doesn’t have a ready answer for either and that neither Congress nor Jewish groups are all that eager to pose them. But both lawmakers and Jewish groups need to keep their eyes on the ball. The goal here was not to pass sanctions; the goal was to stop Iran from going nuclear. The former is means to the end, although “smart” diplomats often get confused when asked to distinguish between lovely paper documents and effective policy.

Those who cannot conceive of an effective “containment” policy for a nuclear Iran had better think ahead. Unless they begin to forcefully press the administration to think about options if and when sanctions fail and to commit to supporting Israel in the event that the Jewish state is forced to act on its own, they will be ill prepared for the day when Obama, as he certainly will,  moves from deterrence to containment and announces: “We tried everything we could but we told you sanctions might not work.”


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