The announcement of what the European Union calls its “toughest sanctions ever” enacted against Iran is certainly a sign that momentum is building for a serious response to Tehran’s drive for nuclear weapons. The measure, which makes trade and financial dealings with the West more difficult, appears to exceed the watered-down sanctions package passed by the United Nations Security Council in June but falls short of the July 1 announcement by President Obama banning the sale of gasoline to Iran as well as tightening banking restrictions. Seen in conjunction with the UN and American announcements, one might think that the diplomatic tide is turning against Iran.
Taken out of the context of years of attempted appeasement of Iran and of European failure to prioritize stopping the Islamist regime’s nuclear project, one might be very much encouraged by a program that targets the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and individuals and companies that are connected to it. Indeed, if the Khamenei/Ahmadinejad government had not spent the last few years laughing at Western sanctions, tightening the regime’s iron grip on the country, and showing how little it cared about the piecemeal efforts to restrain its ambitions, it might seem as if Iran was being backed into a corner and that a genuine international consensus now exists that an Iranian bomb must not be allowed to come into existence.
But we can’t ignore the context of the last few years: the Bush administration punted on a tough response to Iran (and outsourced diplomacy on the issue to the Europeans); and the Obama administration followed with a year of attempted appeasement that went under the rubric of “engagement.” It is true that Obama now seems to understand that “engagement” had an effect opposite of what he intended: encouraging the Iranians to push harder for nukes and to crack down on dissidents rather than to embrace the chance for good relations. But after years of failure, all these sanctions packages may still be too little and too late. It’s not just that we don’t know how close the Iranians are to actually achieving nuclear capability. Whether they are only months or a year or two away from a bomb or, as the optimists among us would have it, several years away from an actual weapon, the legacy of a generation of Western appeasement and apathy may have engendered a belief in Tehran that everything Iran hears from the West is merely politically inspired noise that can be ignored with impunity as its lethal threat to Israel and the stability of the Middle East gets closer to reality.
Even worse would be if Iran believes that these sanctions packages are primarily a Western effort to prevent Israel from unilateral military action. Given the fact that many in the West have often acted as if the possibility of using force against Iran poses a greater danger than the Iranian nuke itself, this is a not an unreasonable interpretation of events. In the meantime, increased sanctions notwithstanding, there is little reason to think Iran is deterred or seriously considering changing its plans or behavior.