As another set of sanctions against Iran makes its way through the United Nations — the fourth in as many years — heads of American Jewish organizations and pro-Israel foreign policy analysts are wondering if these or any other measures will really be able to change the behavior of the regime in Tehran.
In conversations with the Forward, these observers repeatedly came to a stark conclusion: Either the world will come to accept and contain an Iran that has nuclear weapons, or some sort of military strike is inevitable.
The proposed sanctions slowly en route to a vote by the U.N. Security Council would not alter the inevitability of this bleak choice, these experts said.
The Obama administration, however, is pushing hard for this new resolution, which it hopes will pass with a broad consensus. At the beginning of April, the president spent an hour on the phone with Chinese President Hu Jintao in an effort to win over the most recalcitrant of the five permanent members on the Security Council. Following that talk and other recent hints, the administration said that both China and Russia are close to signing off on some form of sanctions.
“Between where we are today and the two ultimate options, there is still a lot of space to be filled,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, referring to a military option or containment. “The question is: Will it be filled? I can only hope it will. What’s contemplated currently seems very inadequate to the task.”
In order to appease China and Russia — not to mention other, non-permanent Security Council members like Turkey and Brazil — the set of sanctions being considered will build on the efforts of three previous resolutions targeting Iran. These contained relatively mild measures that sought to prevent Iran from achieving its nuclear ambitions by limiting its ability to enhance uranium or develop nuclear weapons. (Iranian leaders deny this is their goal). The new resolution is still being negotiated, but it will most likely focus on creating economic difficulties for Iranians or anyone trying to do business with Iran. In the past, however, Tehran has been able to circumvent some of these financial barriers. The freezing of assets, one of the main punitive actions, has not had a deep effect. A recent Wall Street Journal story reported that under the current sanctions, only $43 mil- lion dollars in Iranian money has been frozen in the United States — a quarter of what Iran earns in oil revenue in a single day.
The previous sanctions have avoided the most extreme forms of economic isolation.
But even the two measures that could, by most accounts, create true hardships for Iran are not seen anymore as overwhelmingly crippling. One measure would involve blockading Iran’s refined petroleum supply; the other would sever all ties between Iran and external banks. In spite of the fact that Iran is a large oil producer, it depends on imports of refined petroleum for its own fuel needs. One analyst described this dependence as Iran’s “Achilles heel.”
Even if the Chinese and Russians drop their expected opposition to these two tougher measures, however, it is not clear that they would have the intended harsh impact.
“If the new sanctions touch on the Iranian energy sector — and that remains to be seen — Iranians are already, we’re told, trying to hoard more refined energy product to avoid any effect on their domestic economy,” Harris said. “If it has to do with banking, the Iranians have already created a number of front banks and third-party dummy corporations. The Iranians are quite skilled at all this and that’s why it’s not clear that even strong sanctions, however well intentioned, will have the desired effect.”
The Iranians have had the benefit of time, most analysts said.
“One of the problems when you have such a long run up is that you give the targeted country time to adjust its own resources, its own economy to the world that will be existing under the sanctions,” said Keith Weissman, former top Iran analyst for the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC. “There is no question that sanctions like this will hurt Iranian economic activity, but will they do what we want them to do, which is to affect Iran’s ability to do what we don’t want them to do, like build nuclear weapons?”
The only sure thing about sanctions, Weissman said, was that they would “make the people doing the sanctioning feel better.”
The other major concern is that sanctions, if not thought out well, could end up backfiring. Iran is now in a fragile state, according to these observers, with a large portion of the population in a mood of revolt. Any sanctions that would end up hurting average Iranians might force people to rally around their government and against the Western world.
“Who will suffer? Will it be the revolutionary guard, the regime or the people?” said Yoram Peri, director of the Joseph and Alma Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland. “And if you make the people suffer, generally they will tend to support their government rather than revolt. So the sanctions should be fairly sophisticated. It has to be very well calculated.”
Peri said that in order to be effective, the sanctions would have to be targeted at Iranian elites and coordinated among many different countries.
“Once the Iranians see lack of coordination among the Western powers, they will find loopholes and ways to circumvent the pressure,” said Peri. “So all of this demands real coordination. And to tell you the truth, I’m not sure whether we’ll get there.”
According to observers, the strategy of the Obama administration at the moment is to devise a set of sanctions that will garner a wide consensus in the Security Council. As a trade off, the Americans have had to accept the fact that only a resolution with milder provisions — not ones, for example, that would destroy the Iranian energy and banking sectors — will achieve this goal.
So intent is the administration on reaching this international consensus in the next few weeks that, according to The Hill, a newspaper that covers Congress, it has asked lawmakers to push back a final vote on a unilateral American sanctions bill that contains tough measures against Iran. Both the House and Senate have already approved the measure.
“What the administration is doing is trying to trade off the intensity of sanctions for the breadth of the coalition,” said Gary Hoffbauer, a fellow at the Peter G. Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington and author of the book “Economic Sanctions Reconsidered.”
“Conceivably, opinion in Iran might be somewhat moved if the coalition were broader,” he said. “At least it’s a possibility. I wouldn’t say it’s a probability.”
But Hoffbauer, like others, thought this was a last, best option. “As I understand it, Obama’s strategy is to continue the delay until the Iranians test,” he said. “The crunch will come when they test.”
Contact Gal Beckerman at email@example.com
Gal Beckerman was a staff writer and then the Forward’s opinion editor until 2014. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Follow Gal on Twitter at @galbeckerman