Following years of frustrated talks, flaccid declarations, and conspicuously ineffective sanctions, the Bush administration seems to have recognized that all is not right with its Iran policy. But observers may reasonably doubt whether administration’s answer – more sanctions – is likely to strike terror in Tehran.
In Slovenia yesterday for the European Union-U.S. summit, the last of his presidency, President Bush went with an old favorite: threatening Iran with a new round of sanctions. Backed by the EU, the new sanctions would target Iran’s biggest bank, Bank Melli, unless the Islamic Republic suspends its uranium enrichment activities – a key component of a nuclear program. As the president described it, the new sanctions would compel Iran to choose between international legitimacy and “isolation.”
There’s one problem with the new sanctions: they aren’t at all new. Earlier this March, for instance, the U.N. Security Council imposed nearly identical sanctions on Iran for its repeated refusal to suspend uranium enrichment. Increasing scrutiny on Bank Melli and Bank Saderat, the two banks suspected of financing the regime’s nuclear operations, those sanctions also stepped-up inspections of Iranian cargo at international ports and airports, and expanded the list of individuals who would face travel bans or frozen assets for their part in the nuclear program. To judge the efficacy of those sanctions, one need only consider that that same month Olli Heinonen, the chief investigator at the International Atomic Energy Agency, presented new evidence of Iran’s nuclear activities, including its designs on a nuclear warhead. So much for sanctions.
Recent history, indeed, does nothing to strengthen confidence in a new sanctions regime. In October of 2007, the U.S. announced what was advertised as the “harshest set of sanctions against Iran” since the 1979 revolution. The target then was Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, which had earlier been designated a terrorist group, as well as three of the country’s largest banks, and individuals involved in the nuclear program. Needless to say, those sanctions failed to have the desired effect.
In their failure, they were much in keeping with tradition. After all, the 2007 sanctions came on the heels of the Iran Freedom Support Act which, when passed in 2006, mandated sanctions for Iran’s development of “nuclear weapons or related technologies.” Although the act was billed as a break from prior U.S. policy – a House of Representatives draft of the legislation noted that Iran had “paid no price for nearly twenty years of deception over its nuclear program” – it was in fact a continuation of it: the Iran Freedom Support Act was a modified version of the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act, which had been passed, to little purpose, in 1996.
Despite the muscular rhetoric framing each succeeding round of sanctions, what is most noticeable about such diplomacy is how little it has done to stop, or even to slow, Iran’s nuclear program. IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei is hardly a surrogate for the Bush administration, but last week he circulated a report that seemed to bear out the administration’s worst suspicions. Apart from other concerns, El Baradei noted that Iran still has not explained a number of its programs, among them a missile-building program and another for developing uranium. In the context of the February, 2008, IAEA report documenting that Iran’s denials of uranium enrichment were “inconsistent with the data currently available to the [a]gency,” a torturously diplomatic admission that Iran was lying about its nuclear development, it seems increasingly clear that sanctions have done nothing to dampen Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Nuclear weapons, of course, are only part of the problem. In Lebanon as in Iraq, Iran remains a leading sponsor of terrorism – the Revolutionary Guards’ designation as a terrorist group notwithstanding. An abundance of evidence, not all of it from American sources, suggests that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps is actively manufacturing the particularly deadly brand of roadside bombs, known as explosively formed projectiles or EFP’s, that are killing American and coalition troops in Iraq.
Just as destructive is Iran’s support for Iraqi jihadists, including both Sunnis and Shias. Were the Iranian regime embarrassed rather than encouraged by such revelations, it would have come as a significant public-relations blow last week when Iraqi forces announced the capture of an Iranian operative suspected of funneling arms to Baghdad terrorists, just as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was heading to Iran to discuss security cooperation between the two countries. Maliki would not have been surprised. So pervasive has Iranian meddling in Iraq become that last month he formed a special committee to document the extent of Iran’s interference.
That Iran remains such a potent regional threat despite repeated rounds of diplomacy should come as a lesson on the perils of negotiations with the regime. Barack Obama in particular has emphasized continued diplomacy with Iran, most controversially vowing to meet with Iranian leaders without preconditions. Since winning his party’s nomination, to be sure, Obama has sounded far more sensible. His address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, in which Obama pledged to do “everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” made all the right enemies – including Iran’s client Hamas, which angrily withdrew its previous endorsement of the Illinois Senator. Still, it’s not clear if Obama’s comments represent a change of substance or merely of style.
What is surely beyond dispute is that the Bush administration’s reliance on diplomacy backed by sanctions stands little chance of succeeding. In its unblushing defiance of the international community and its not-so-clandestine operations in Iraq, Iran has signaled that it won’t be deterred by anything so routine as sanctions. That means that the next administration will have to come up with a more realistic means of containing the Iranian threat. The irony is that, for all the caricatures of the “warmongering” Bush administration, its legacy may be to show that, at least where Iran is concerned, traditional diplomacy is not the answer.