You have to give French President Nicolas Sarkozy credit: So far, he’s the only international leader to demand the world put its money where its mouth is on Iran. For weeks, world leaders have been lining up to say how disastrous an Israeli military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be; indeed, as Jonathan noted last week, the Obama administration frequently seems more interested in preventing Israeli military action than in preventing Iran from getting the bomb. Yet Sarkozy is the first to take that opposition to its logical conclusion: If the world actually wants to prevent an Israeli strike, it needs to demonstrate that Iran’s nuclear program can be stopped without military action. And that means imposing truly crippling sanctions on Tehran.
The new sanctions announced by the U.S., Britain and Canada yesterday are all welcome; all will genuinely increase the pressure on Iran. But they fall well short of what Sarkozy proposed: for “the United States, Japan and Canada and other willing countries to take the decision to immediately freeze the assets of the Iranian Central Bank [and] stop purchases of Iranian oil.”
The U.S., for instance, declared Iran as “a jurisdiction of ‘primary money laundering concern’ under section 311 of the USA Patriot Act,” which will make it harder for Western financial institutions to do business with Iran. But it did not move directly against Iran’s Central Bank, which is what would really be necessary to shut down Iran’s financial lifeline. Britain ordered its financial institutions to stop doing business with Iran, but has reportedly decided against targeting Iran’s oil trade.
It could be that most Western countries genuinely consider a nuclear Iran preferable to the financial pain crippling sanctions would impose on them: Targeting Iran’s oil trade, for instance, would almost certainly raise the price of oil. But the consequences of an Israeli military strike could easily prove just as bad, and might well be worse, given that Iran has repeatedly threatened to retaliate not just against Israel, but also against the U.S. and other Western countries. And because most Israelis believe a nuclear Iran poses an existential threat to Israel, Israel isn’t likely to deem a nuclear Iran preferable to the financial and military consequences of a strike.
Thus, if world leaders really believe what they say about the negative consequences of Israeli military action, crippling sanctions, however financially painful, are the lesser of two evils. Sarkozy appears to have grasped that. The question now is whether anyone else will follow suit.