On the same day that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the General Assembly of the United Nations that time was running out to stop Iran’s nuclear program, a leaked report from Israel’s Foreign Ministry is being interpreted in some quarters as contradicting his stand. The report, first published in Haaretz and then recycled in the New York Times, is supposed to say that existing sanctions on Iran have caused a great deal of damage to the country. Combined with the fact that Israel’s diplomats have been campaigning for increasing the sanctions, some are concluding that not only does the document undermine Netanyahu’s warnings but that, contrary to what the prime minister and other Israelis have been saying, it is reasonable to believe that sanctions combined with diplomacy can solve the problem.
But the problem with such a conclusion is that, as even Haaretz notes, even if ordinary Iranians are feeling the economic pain brought on by sanctions, there is no evidence that the resolve of Iran’s leadership to push on with their nuclear project has been altered. Even more to the point, there is no contradiction between Netanyahu’s statements and a desire for increased sanctions. Indeed, his call for Western “red lines” — a point now made famous by his use of an illustration of a cartoon bomb across which he drew a “red line” — only makes sense if the West is ratcheting up sanctions and enforcing them.
It may be that the leak of the report may be the work of some in the Foreign Ministry who don’t like Netanyahu. Perhaps it is a ploy by Foreign Minister Lieberman to cast himself in a more moderate light. But even if that is true, it should be remembered that it has been Netanyahu who has been the principle advocate for tough Iran sanctions for many years. Israel has been begging the West to shut down commerce with Iran and to embargo their oil exports long before the current administration in Washington took office. The problem is that up until this past year the only sanctions the West agreed upon were weak and utterly ineffective. It was only as the alarm felt in Israel about the progress made by the Iranians began to escalate that President Obama reluctantly acceded to tougher measures.
However, even those supposedly “crippling” sanctions have not been fully enforced with some of Iran’s best oil customers granted waivers to continue sending cash to Tehran. Worse than that, Iran’s ability to evade even those restrictions that are allegedly being closed up has been widely reported. Israel wants those loopholes closed and for Western nations to stop granting exemptions and to vigorously prosecute those firms and banks that are laundering money for the Iranians.
In theory, a fully enforced sanctions program could bring Iran to its knees and inflict enough economic pain to make the ayatollahs give up their nuclear dream. But in the absence of enforcement and the tightening of the restrictions, there is no reason to believe that the current slapdash effort, combined with a diplomatic track whose only effect has been to buy the Iranians more time to keep enriching uranium, could possibly work.
It should also be noted that while the Israeli report talks about the impact of the sanctions on the lives of the Iranian people and the dissatisfaction felt with the current despotic government, it would be irresponsible to jump to the conclusion that the Islamist regime is on its last legs. The ayatollahs have shown no hesitance in the path to use whatever force was needed to repress dissent, let alone any signs of regime change. Expecting economic hardships to topple them or even to weaken their commitment to building a bomb, especially when they may be very close to success, is not realistic.
While there are good reasons to doubt that President Obama means what he says about the threat and refusing to contemplate containment of a nuclear Iran, Israel has no choice but to continue to advocate for the sort of tougher sanctions that might enable him to keep his word. But it should also be understood that in the absence of tougher restrictions on commerce with Iran and enforcement of those that already exist, the notion that diplomacy can solve the problem is absurd. If force is to be avoided, it will require both the increased sanctions the Israeli Foreign Ministry favors as well as Netanyahu’s red lines.