The Obama administration is working to convince the United Nations Security Council to impose yet another round of sanctions on Iran. Those efforts have to overcome the recalcitrance of China, Russia, and other Security Council members. But even if the effort succeeds, how much impact will it have? To judge by the historical evidence, not much. The New York Times ran a fascinating article last Sunday with a horrifying headline that sums it all up: “U.S. Enriches Companies Defying Its Policy on Iran.”
The article examines the implementation of the Iran Sanctions Act of 1996 — legislation passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton that is far tougher than anything the Security Council might approve. It imposes, in theory at least, major American sanctions on companies that invest in Iran’s energy sector or its nuclear or missile programs:
The law gives the president a menu of possible punishments he can choose to levy against offending companies. Not only do they risk losing federal contracts, but they can also be prevented from receiving Export-Import Bank loans, obtaining American bank loans over $10 million in a given year, exporting their goods to the United States, purchasing licensed American military technology and, in the case of financial firms, serving as a primary dealer in United States government bonds or as a repository for government funds.
It is well known that not a single company has actually been sanctioned under the act. The administrations of Clinton, Bush (yes Bush!), and Obama have all refused to act in ways that might hinder relations with the European Union, China, Japan, India, or other countries whose firms do big business in Iran. But the Times account makes clear that the situation is even more ludicrous. Far from sanctioning companies doing business with Iran, the federal government has awarded them “more than $107 billion in contract payments, grants and other benefits over the past decade.”
Both houses of Congress recently have passed legislation, now heading for reconciliation, that will toughen up the existing sanctions on Iran’s oil sector. But if existing sanctions aren’t being enforced, what hope is there for future sanctions, whether they come from Congress or the United Nations? The U.S. and its allies simply have not displayed the will to get tough with Iran. With time running short before Iran has the capability to field nukes, it’s time to look at other alternatives — starting with more support for the Green Movement. Between 2003 and 2009, we spent an average of more than $100 billion a year on the Iraq war. Imagine what only a small portion of that that money — say $10 billion, or one month’s worth of operations in Iraq — could achieve if given to groups working for the peaceful overthrow of the Iranian regime. That, to me, seems a more rewarding approach than sanctions, which have failed time and again.