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The Sanctions Chimera By: Douglas Stone
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, March 20, 2009


Iran is determined to develop a nuclear weapon, and all evidence suggests that nothing short of force is going to stop it. That applies especially to the combination of low-level negotiations and economic sanctions, which, despite a history of failure, remain the preferred approach of the Obama administration, Congress and the mainstream media.

The mullahs in Tehran know that if they can just last another few months, not only will sanctions be moot, but their nuclear arsenal will give them dominance of the Persian Gulf and ironclad security for their regime – both of which will offer the additional advantage of allowing increased support for terrorist allies and the possibility of harming Israel and the United States.

Sanctions are almost always a chimera. At least in the modern age, they have caused only two nations to change fundamental policies: Rhodesia and South Africa. But in both instances the sanctions took many years to work and were nearly absolute, as the Communist bloc was all too happy to help in strangling outposts of the West, and the West was willing to give up two of its allies.

Since late 2006, there have been three rounds of the mildest of sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council for Iran’s breach of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. But even if they’re of marginally increasing stringency, their extreme weakness has barely affected the Iranian economy.

The mullahs haven’t budged. Nor has Tehran shown any signs of giving up uranium enrichment in response to even harsher sanctions imposed by the U.S., Britain and France. That’s not surprising, since other Western nations, especially Germany and Italy, continue to maintain an extensive trade with Iran, not only in the goods and services their allies refuse to sell, but also in “dual-use” items such as precision instruments, computer software, and tunneling equipment that may help sustain the Iranian nuclear program.

The Chinese and Russians continue to play their cynical game of reproaching the Iranians over their nuclear program after diluting and delaying the sanctions. The Russians have even recently announced a new strategic relationship with Iran, and promised last December to sell what may be the most effective surface-to-air defense system in the world, the S-300 (the prospective delivery of which may trigger Israeli military action).

Both Russia and China may therefore be counted on to forestall harsher actions and supply any goods and services that may become unavailable in response to tightened Western trade. Certainly Iranian nuclear weapons present little threat to China or Russia. The mullahs know that even to threaten Russia or China could have devastating consequences, as the current and former communist giants have none of the scruples of the West in dealing with those who threaten them. For their part, Russian and Chinese leaders are only interested in maintaining their power and wealth, not the well-being of their own nations, let alone that of the world; an interest that is served by undermining -- or worse -- the West, particularly the United States.

Often presented as a glimmer of hope is the program of banking sanctions imposed by the U.S. Under pressure, these sanctions have been accepted by an increasing number of the financial institutions in crucial allied countries, particularly Germany. Since the U.S. is at the center of the world financial system, with its Western allies a critical adjunct, the Iranians have certainly felt the squeeze, as their Russian and Chinese friends can offer little help. Both government and private financial transactions by Iranian individuals and businesses have become more difficult or more expensive, and there were even reports last year that Iranian embassies in Europe were paying debts in wads of cash.

At the same time, the Iranian economy is much more primitive than those in the West, and adversaries will not remain static in response to our actions. Low cunning is the special province of the less powerful, and the Iranians have adapted, and will adapt, to circumstances. For example, they may return to such old-fashioned practices as using informal “letters of credit” that depend on personal and family relationships. A merchant in Teheran might ask a relative in one of the Gulf States to pay for goods there in return for which the Teheran merchant will pay for Iranian goods to be shipped to a Gulf State. The Iranians would still seem to have room to maneuver. And always there is the matter of limited time.

In considering the complex calculus of how much time is available for the sanctions to work, how thorough they might be, and the hardships the Iranian people will accept -- all in light of the payoff for obtaining a nuclear weapon -- it seems clear what Iran’s leaders have made their decision. And they’ve decided to push on toward the finish line for producing nuclear weapons.




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