Commentary Magazine


Sanctions on Iran: A Tale of Two Narratives

In a session with journalists at the White House last week, President Obama reportedly “made the case that his Iran policy is working.” He also hedged his bets by acknowledging that the “Iranians may be impervious to sanctions.” Friendly journalists being a quiescent filter, the Obama narrative comes through quite well: our president, earnest and competent, is doggedly wielding every tool in his toolbox. He sees some progress — reportedly in the form of “rumblings” that sanctions are prodding Iran to rethink its nuclear ambitions — but he recognizes the recalcitrant character of the Iranian leadership. He’s no fool, but this is, after all, a big problem.

That’s one narrative. It’s not a narrative about what Iran wants or is going to get, or what kind of threat that might pose to the Middle East or the U.S. It’s a narrative about what Obama is doing and how he sees the problem. We can call this one the Narrative of Obama.

The other narrative running in parallel with it is what we might call the Narrative of Events. Its elements are brought to our attention primarily by nontraditional media. The Obama administration simply ignores them in formulating its media themes, focusing instead on what Obama is doing and what he might have to do. Three developments in particular have cropped up in the last week.

One is the confirmation by IAEA inspectors that Iran has begun enriching uranium more efficiently. It’s a technical point, but it shortens the timeline to a weapon. As the Institute for Science and International Security observes, the procedure Iran has inaugurated mirrors the steps to a nuclear weapon outlined in the A.Q. Khan plans recovered from Libya. The Khan method essentially allows Iran to squeeze the most medium-enriched uranium possible from a given amount of low-enriched uranium, accelerating its progress toward the high-enriched uranium needed for a bomb. As the Reuters report notes, analysts say Iran “could advance to weapons-grade level in months.”

The other developments are interrelated and concern the economic sanctions themselves. One is the extent to which China — along with Turkey, India, and Russia — is stepping into the void created by tightened Western sanctions. This article from the new-right journal Il Foglio (available only in Italian) summarizes a number of mutually reinforcing factors, from Iran’s significance in China’s petroleum strategy to the dramatic increase in trade between the two countries and India’s determination not to be sidelined. According to Il Foglio, Turkey has proposed that Iran use major Turkish ports — rather than Dubai — as hubs for its foreign business. As I wrote in July, the rail lines are in place to make this a reality, allowing Iran to simply bypass the Strait of Hormuz for much of its trade.

Worrying about the danger it might create to inspect cargo ships in the Persian Gulf may soon be an outdated concern. Meanwhile, the third development reported in the last week is South Korea’s dilemma over the sanctions. This editorial reflects the significant concerns in Seoul about oil imports and the impact on medium-size businesses; Il Foglio points out, moreover, that if South Korea cooperates fully on sanctions, it will be abandoning one of its fastest-growing foreign markets to China. South Korean enthusiasm for effective cooperation is by no means assured.

Indeed, we are reaching the point at which it’s just as likely that patterns of trade and regional power will shift as it is that nations will continue to respond reflexively to American requests. Rick’s piece today is a timely reminder that the Narrative of Obama is an especially verbose one. It is also increasingly divorced from the Narrative of Events.

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