Commentary Magazine


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New Symbolic Iran Sanctions Mean Nothing

In the wake of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s recent report on Iran’s nuclear program, some action by the United States to ratchet up the pressure on Tehran was expected. But yesterday’s announcement that the Treasury Department has named the Central Bank of Iran and the entire Iranian banking system as a “primary money laundering concern” was a purely symbolic gesture that will do nothing to cripple the ability of the Islamist regime to continue on its destructive path. Though accompanied by sanctions on Iran’s oil and nuclear industry and other measures that may reduce its access to foreign capital and credit, the package falls far short of the sort of crippling measures that might actually shake the ayatollahs’ faith in their ability to survive.

For all of the tough talk emanating out of Washington about Iran and its dangerous drive for a military application of nuclear power these days, the Obama administration still appears reluctant to go straight to the heart of the problem and to prohibit transactions on Iran’s Central Bank or a full-scale ban of oil imports and transactions with its oil industry. Rather than this announcement being a sign the U.S. is finally undertaking a serious course of action on the issue, this symbolic swipe at Iran is more likely to reaffirm Tehran’s belief they have nothing to fear from the United States.

Though Secretary of State Hillary Clinton once spoke of the need for the United States to enact “crippling” sanctions on Iran to bring them to their senses on the nuclear question, no one in their right mind could possibly point to the package of measures announced yesterday as a fulfillment of that threat. When combined with Russia’s announcement that it will not agree to any further sanctions on Iran —which will make it impossible to get United Nations approval for any heightened restrictions on dealing with the country — it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion the American position on the issue is mere talk.

There are two basic problems with the administration’s approach to sanctioning Iran: the unwillingness of U.S. allies to stop dealing with Iran and the reluctance of the United States to enforce existing sanctions.

Even if we believe in the sincerity of its stated opposition to an Iranian bomb and its determination to prevent the regime from obtaining one, Washington’s desire to halt economic intercourse with the country is hamstrung by the reluctance of its allies to go along with the program. If the U.S. were serious about crippling Iran’s economy, the obvious thing to do would be to ban all transactions with Iran’s Central Bank. But since doing so would make it difficult if not impossible for Japan, China and other nations to purchase Iranian oil, Washington has refrained from doing so. Instead, we get a symbolic statement about the bank that does little if anything to harm it or the regime. Unless the West or even just the United States is prepared to actually inflict the sort of pain on Iran that would put the Islamist government there in jeopardy, why would anyone — especially the ayatollahs — believe the U.S. means business?

This same impulse relates to the second problem with America’s sanctions on Iran. Though there are a number of measures already in place to make it difficult to do business with Iran, the fact remains that the United States still isn’t enforcing these rules. As the New York Times reported a year ago, the same Treasury Department that made yesterday’s announcement about getting tough with Iran has granted more than 10,000 exemptions from those sanctions.

So long as America is merely talking tough but refraining from enacting serious sanctions or even enforcing the mild ones already in place, why should Iran believe it is in any trouble? With Russia backing it up at the UN and an Obama administration that is too timid to do anything but enact symbolic measures, the Iranians can proceed toward their nuclear goal without fear the West can stop them.

The only real question here is why supporters of the Obama administration who worry about Iran and the existential threat it poses to Israel are quietly accepting this sorry situation. Just as the U.S. is letting Iran off the hook, so, too, are pro-Israel Democrats allowing Obama to get away with talking about Iran but actually doing nothing.