Commentary Magazine


Can Iran Talk its Way Out of Oil Embargo?

While the Obama administration is talking a good game lately about tightening sanctions on Iran, it has yet to take the steps that would make an oil embargo on Iran possible. Thus, even though the Europeans are taking such steps, the gap between American rhetoric and action may be encouraging the Iranians to believe they may once again be able to entice the West into pointless negotiations that would give Tehran’s scientists and technicians more time to achieve their goal of a nuclear weapon.

That may be the story behind the claims coming out of Iran that a new round of talks with the West on the nuclear issue may be in the offing. Though we take Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi’s comments made today in Turkey that “negotiations under way about venue and date” with a grain of salt, there is little question that Iran is counting on Obama’s hesitancy and the diplomatic support of Russia and the Turks to allow them to go on stalling the international community. The signals they are getting that the United States is exerting pressure on Israel to put off any plans of attacking Iran may also have convinced the Islamist regime they are in no imminent danger.

The statement issued today by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak to the effect that any decision on attacking Iran is “very far off” seems intended to placate the Americans on the eve of a visit to the Jewish state by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey. U.S. displeasure over what is believed to be an Israeli operation to assassinate Iranian scientists has left the Israelis with little choice to bow, at least temporarily, to Obama’s demands for regional quiet.

However, the Israelis are still not sure to what use the United States will put that quiet.

If the administration intends to use the coming weeks to convince both the Europeans and Asian allies to go along with an oil embargo of Iran, then it makes sense for the Israelis to play along and not do anything that might upset a delicately constructed diplomatic coalition on behalf of sanctions.

But if, instead, a period of quiet is exploited to restart negotiations with Iran, then the Israelis will know they are being played for suckers. Iran has cleverly played upon Obama’s naive belief in his powers of persuasion before and gained itself three more years to get closer to realizing their nuclear ambitions. Considering that the Europeans are now apparently more eager to enact crippling sanctions than the more cautious Americans, Iran may think they can exploit any cracks in the Western consensus to further drag out the process.

But an even more sobering thought on the subject comes today from former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton. Writing in USA Today, Bolton threw cold water on the entire concept of sanctions on Iran being enough to force Tehran to give up their dream of nuclear weapons:

Sanctions have long been touted as the answer, but they are not. Iran has enough friends (Russia and China, plus Cuba, Venezuela and others on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent Latin jaunt) to withstand them. North Korea, the world’s most heavily sanctioned country, with a population perennially near starvation, has exploded two nuclear devices. Nonetheless, both the Obama and Bush administrations sought negotiations with Pyongyang’s criminal regime, an unfortunate tutorial for Tehran’s mullahs.

Bolton rightly fears that if Obama allows himself to be sucked into a new round of talks that will put off the implementation of an embargo, it will just mean more time for Iran to get closer to its nuclear goal. Even worse, he seems to be worried that an oil embargo, which Washington and many others have seen as the only way short of war that could stop the Iranians, would itself not be enough. If Russia and China do decide to flout such an embargo, then it’s difficult to see how the U.S. and the E.U. (assuming the Europeans don’t also buckle) can make the oil sanctions work by themselves.

But apparently we’re as far away from even trying an embargo as the Israelis are from a unilateral strike. If the administration takes the Iranian diplomatic bait as a way to put off any decision on an embargo that would raise oil prices at home or the use of force until after the November elections, that will bring the world much closer to the day when it will wake up and find Iran has tested a nuclear weapon.

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