Commentary Magazine


Sanctions: A Hole Big Enough to Drive Anything Through

Many in the West think of sanctions on Iran as potentially involving a naval embargo — imposed in the Persian Gulf — or cargo inspections at sea. For a lot of people, there’s a mental picture of naval action in or near the Strait of Hormuz provoking an Iranian backlash against world shipping. But that image is largely outdated. From a much broader geographic perspective, the sanctions on Iran are porous to an absurd degree: a fact nicely demonstrated by a cargo-transit path emerging this month, which features America’s NATO ally Turkey.

I’ve written here and here about the options afforded Iran by its new continuous rail link with Turkey and Pakistan. Today, Aug. 12, is the day announced by the three nations’ railway officials for the freight line’s first commercial run.

There can be no pretense now that it’s possible to enforce sanctions in the absence of Turkey’s cooperation. The newly capable cargo-transit option through Turkey changes everything about the problem for the West’s would-be enforcers. Turkey’s ports are wide open and will remain so. There is no will within NATO to do more than complain gently to this increasingly troublesome ally. Turkey also has robust and growing trade with every nation that might act as a waypoint for sanctioned shipments to Iran. Brazil, meanwhile — Turkey’s partner in brokering a nuclear deal with Iran — has ramped up trade dramatically in the last year with North Korea. These factors make it easier to hide sanctioned shipments among the unremarkable ones.

Iran’s long borders and multiple trade corridors were always going to make enforcing commercial sanctions a very difficult proposition, even with the cooperation of nations like Russia, China, and Turkey. We don’t have that cooperation, however. There is no way to clamp down on Russian gasoline shipments to Iran (which may well go across the Caspian Sea, outside our naval reach). We would assuredly try to intercept prohibited weapons or nuclear-related cargo heading by ship to Bandar Abbas — but there is no longer a logistic need to ship them through the Persian Gulf, nor does refined gasoline have to take that route. It doesn’t matter which route is cheaper; what matters is that Iran has options we can’t close off.

One counterproductive feature of the sanctions on Iran is that they amplify the reasons for all the Asian actors in this drama to leverage each other. The Turks would be happy to gain influence over Iranian strategy with their growing role in Tehran’s access to global trade. Naturally, Iran doesn’t want to be that dependent on Turkey and will probably seek transit alternatives with Pakistan and the other Persian Gulf nations. China will shape its own opportunities from that Iranian outreach. Similar calculations enliven the strategic debate in every capital in the region. Obama’s unenforceable sanctions won’t have their intended effect, but their unintended effects are likely to reverberate for decades. Such are the consequences of using soft power for soft power’s sake.

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