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Iran Sanctions Are Dangerously Ineffective

JINSA Report #: 

July 16, 2012

When it comes to compelling Tehran to end its nuclear weapons program, sanctions - as employed by the U.S. government and our European partners - amount to little more than a time-consuming exercise with scant possibility of success. Moreover, the latest round of negotiations, which went nowhere, is just the most recent illustration of how the mullahs play for time, convinced that their sanctions-induced economic slowdown can be weathered and that the world will line up to purchase their oil once Iran's status as a nuclear power is secure.

Much has been made of the latest round of sanctions; they have been described as the toughest ever levied against Iran. As of June 28, the United States can bar foreign banks that participate in oil-related business with the Central Bank of Iran from access to American financial markets. Since July 1, European Union members are prohibited from buying Iranian oil as well as insuring ships that carry Iranian oil. It has been reported that these new sanctions could cost Iran some $4 billion a month. That is far from enough.

Iran's significant monetary and gold reserves (foreign currency reserves estimates run from $60 billion to $100 billion) however, coupled with a reduced but still substantial oil income, will continue to buffer the Tehran government from the degree of economic pain that even the most optimistic sanctions supporter believes would force a change in policy.

The recent parley, held in Moscow, was the third in a series involving Iran and the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany (the P5+1). To avoid a complete negotiating collapse, it was agreed that lower-level experts would meet on July 3 in Istanbul. They did, and have as little to show for their efforts as do their superiors.

Due to careful planning, even these "toughest yet" sanctions have been neutered by clever Iranian government policies, helped along by weak implementation and White House-issued waivers, lack of sustained EU commitment to their enforcement, and outright opposition by Russia and China. As we wrote in February, sanctions "are a short term tactic doomed to failure in the foreseeable future..."

Sanctions, cyber attacks, propaganda campaigns and targeted killings of Iranian nuclear scientists may slow the mullah's progress but, if anything, fortify their resolve to prevail. Meanwhile, negotiations simply provide Iran time to enrich more uranium.

The pursuit of nuclear weapons is something the Iranian leadership views as a strategic imperative. Indeed, ideological and security concerns clearly trump the economy in Tehran.

Furthermore, as some analysts have suggested, the Iranian government believes that defiance in the face of western sanctions is yet another reason for the greater Islamic world to emulate Iran's revolutionary example.

Rather than positing sanctions as the keystone of its policy to deny Iran nuclear weapons, the United States should resolve to:

  • Discard the notion that Washington is prepared to accept a policy of containment toward a nuclear Iran.

  • Expand ties to the countries immediately threatened by a nuclear Iran to include the Gulf Arab states and Israel. Areas of focus should include increasing the size and tempo of bilateral and multilateral military exercises, expansion of local basing for U.S. forces, and the promotion of a regional alliance explicitly opposed to a nuclear Iran.

  • Prepare to use military force at the optimal time regardless of elections or other political considerations, recognizing that the credible threat of force is the best insurance that measures short of war will have the greatest opportunity for success.

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