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The Problem with Iran Sanctions

In Today’s National Post, Sara Akrami and Saeed Ghasseminejad highlight the challenge of Western sanctions policy–those in charge in Tehran are still largely getting away with murder:

Iran’s continuing progress toward a nuclear bomb should have made it clear to the West that the current sanctions regime simply isn’t going to cut it. When it comes to the nuclear program there are two important decision makers: the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader. While there has been some progress in targeting the IRGC with sanctions, Khamenei himself has yet to receive much attention from the international community.

Akrami and Ghasseminejad are right: sanctions must be much broader and more aggressive if the West is to make a dent in Iran’s nuclear posture before it is too late (and there isn’t much time left).

But the problem with the sanctions regime is much broader. It is not just a question of whether sanctions will convince the regime in Tehran to change its cost-benefit analysis on the nuclear program. After all, so far all the signs go in the opposite direction, since Iran, despite the pain that sanctions have inflicted on its economy, is still defiantly marching on. It is not just a question of adding new measures to the already sweeping set of restrictions on Iran’s economy, its procurement networks and its financial institutions.

The problem with sanctions is that, even assuming they are the right tool to bring Iran’s nuclear quest to a halt, their main failure starts with poor implementation. Let’s face it, despite hundreds of designations, executive orders, European Union Council decisions, and other Western governments’ measures against Iranian companies, individuals and even entire sectors of Iran’s economy, Iran is going about its business as if nothing much happened.

Take Mahan Air.

The U.S. Department of Treasury sanctioned Mahan Air shortly after Iran’s plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington in October 2011. It sanctioned all its fleet for having transported Revolutionary Guards troops to Syria to aid Syria’s attempts to suffocate the two-year old popular uprising. The U.S. Department of Commerce has further restricted a number of entities linked to Mahan Air that procure for the company overseas. The U.S. government briefly succeeded in blocking delivery of several Boeing 747 planes to Mahan Air back in 2008. But success was short lived (here is one, no longer impounded as of February 2009).

As headlined at the time of sanctioning the airline, “your ticket with Mahan Air is cancelled.”

Or is it?

The Norwegian ambassador to Iran did not seem particularly enthused with American sanctions. He recently met with Mahan Air’s CEO, Hamid Arabnejad. The Business Year gave Arabnejad a glowing interview in January. Mahan Air launched a new China route days before being sanctioned in September 2011. Your ticket may be cancelled, but they are still flying there and adding destinations.

What about spare parts–an ongoing sore point in U.S.-Iranian relations since the Islamic Revolution? Well, if the Department of Commerce feels compelled to slap restrictions on Iranian companies trying to buy American-made spare parts for their planes thirty-something years after sanctions on airplane spare parts were introduced, that says something about how effective sanctions have been. All of Mahan Air’s companies in Europe that are under restrictions seem to be still fully active. Some of Mahan’s operations in Germany are not even mentioned in U.S. sanctions’ lists–a sign that Iranian middlemen are still way ahead of the game.

And this is just a relatively small private airline with connections to the Revolutionary Guards. Just imagine then, how many hundreds of other tricks Iranian procurement agents are pulling out of their hats to keep their regime’s business afloat.

If sanctions are to make any dent in Iran’s nuclear procurement, Western governments must rethink both their policy and its implementation. It is not enough to put a few companies on the black list–sanctions must be sweeping to the point of a total economic embargo. And it is not enough to put rules in the law book–unless sanctions are truly enforced, Iran will continue to elude restrictions.


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