Commentary Magazine


Iran Worried? Obama Guts Sanctions

Three rounds of the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran have proven President Obama’s “window of diplomacy” a colossal failure. But Secretary of State Clinton as well as various administration cheerleaders have been reminding us lately that the international sanctions on Tehran that have been belatedly put in place are just about to really bite. At the end of the month, the West will impose an oil embargo on Iran that could really hurt its economy and perhaps bring the regime to its knees if it is universally observed and vigorously enforced.

But today’s announcement that the Obama administration will grant China and Singapore a six-month exemption from the sanctions shows the confident manner the Iranians displayed at the nuclear talks was not a false front. Having forearmed themselves in the period leading up to the sanctions by securing more contracts with the Chinese, Iran dared the Americans to risk a confrontation with Beijing. The result is that Tehran’s belief President Obama and his Western allies are bluffing has been confirmed rather than debunked. This will act as a virtual green light for the Iranians to keep pushing ahead toward their nuclear goal while Western leaders posture but do little to stop them.

The dirty secret about the Western sanctions on Iran is that their leader advocate has never bothered to enforce them. The weak sanctions that were in place were selectively policed by the United States, with the Treasury Department granting exemptions to thousands of firms that allowed them to go on doing business there. But that is nothing when compared to giving China and Singapore, two of Iran’s major business partners, a free pass to conduct business as usual.

It is true that Chinese imports from Iran dropped 25 percent in the first six months of 2012, a factor that the administration used as an excuse to justify their exemptions. But oil analysts are predicting that far more Iranian oil will be sold to China this summer due to the contracts that Tehran wisely signed with Beijing in order to compensate for any European losses. Though Clinton has argued that the world must be gradually weaned from Iranian oil, what is happening is that Iran is simply changing its customer list and counting on the enormous clout of the Chinese to deter the Americans from cracking down on those who violate the embargo.

Thus, rather than Iran spending the summer feeling even more isolated, the ayatollahs can point to the U.S. exemptions as yet another diplomatic victory that will allow them to continue on their nuclear path.

Even if the sanctions were enforced now, it may be too late to completely stop the Iranians without resorting to the use of force. Having wasted the first three and a half years of his administration on a comical attempt to “engage” Iran and in feckless negotiations, President Obama is now speaking as if he has Tehran just where he wants it. But all he has accomplished is to kick the can down the road just as his predecessor did. Though the sporadically enforced sanctions are hurting Iran, the Iranians don’t seem to be anywhere close to giving up.

To the contrary, the more the West talks about getting tough, the more Iran believes talk is all they will do. The exemptions will only reinforce their conviction that President Obama is a paper tiger who also only wishes to keep the diplomatic process going in order to deter Israel from attacking Iran and to keep the issue from bubbling up during his re-election campaign. Iran is acting as if it is winning the confrontation with the West over its quest for a nuclear weapon. But after today, who can blame them?