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Campaign Against Iran Sanctions Grows Within Political Right and Left


By Shayan Ghajar,

President Obama's push for U.N. sanctions on Iran is gaining in intensity this week even as the U.N. Security Council neglected to include the issue in its April agenda. Simultaneously, the president is urging Congress not to rush into passing sanctions on Iran in hopes that such legislation would not derail his attempts at a diplomatic resolution or mustering support for international sanctions from Russia and China, two of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. The debate continues, however, as to whether any sanctions whatsoever would be effective at this point in slowing Iran's nuclear program.

Many policymakers feel that sanctions will be ineffective, though for widely varying reasons. Some, such as Representative Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) support President Obama's efforts to resolve the issue diplomatically. Increasing sanctions, Rep. Ellison argues, would strengthen rather than harm the regime, both politically and economically.

Politically the regime would benefit doubly, Ellison contends, as increased pressure from the outside world would result in a surge of nationalism and galvanize many into rallying around the nuclear program even if they disagree with their government. The Green Movement would be marginalized by the exigencies of national solidarity. Opposition leader Mir Hossein Moussavi has repeatedly denounced sanctions, Rep. Ellison points out, and has explicitly stated that opposition to sanctions is fundamental to the Green philosophy.

Rep. Ellison also argues that sanctions would, ironically, benefit the government economically. A RAND Corporation report on the efficacy of existing sanctions indicates that there is a direct correlation between broad sanctions, such as on gasoline, and an increase in the Revolutionary Guards' wealth. The guards, taking advantage of the withering private sectors most affected by sanctions, gain monopolies on essential goods and services. "The more effective the embargo, the greater the shortages, the larger the Revolutionary Guards profits," the report says.

The RAND report, however, supported targeted sanctions aimed primarily at the Revolutionary Guard and key members of the government. Sanctions, RAND conceded, were of limited utility in halting the nuclear program or economically impacting the regime: "further sanctions against Iran are not likely to alter Teheran's nuclear policies." At the same time, making a show of solidarity with the opposition movement and condemning the nuclear program at least symbolically is essential, the report argues. "In any case, further sanctions are almost inevitable, given the paucity of other viable options." In other words, RAND believes symbolic targeted sanctions with limited practical value remain the only option for American policymakers.

Senator Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, appears to see sanctions as a necessary last step before America either accepts the reality of a nuclear Iran, or engages in military strikes to attempt to destroy the program. His statements frame sanctions more as a warning shot across Iran's bow than a measure with actual tangible effect on the nuclear program.

This approach may explain the reluctance of P5 members Russia and China to support the American bid for sanctions in the U.N. Security Council. RIA Novosti, a state-owned Russian news agency, quotes Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying sanctions should not be a mere precursor to an air strike on Iran. "Any Security Council decision [on Iran] should clearly state that they can not be used as a basis for the use of force [against Iran]," Lavrov stated. Reluctance to back sanctions proposed by the United States may also stem from tension between Russia and the U.S. over their mutual nuclear treaties and the American missile shield being installed in the region.

Reasons for China's continued ambiguity on the topic of sanctions is even more opaque, though the Christian Science Monitor hypothesizes it may have to do with upcoming debates on China's influence on the value of the dollar.

U.N. sanctions are too little, too late, according to two recent articles in the Wall Street Journal. Detailing the nuances of current and proposed sanctions, an article by Steve Stecklow highlights the miniscule impact of current sanctions on the Iranian economy, saying the financial impact is one quarter of what Iran makes in a day in oil revenues. Asset freezes are the most prevalent tool used in existing sanctions, a strategy that proves effective only against small sums of money and leaves many back doors open for Iran to continue pursuing its technological and financial interests. Newer sanctions may adjust for this, attempting to make conducting business difficult for Iran rather than simply tracking accounts down and freezing them, though exactly how remains to be seen.

A WSJ Opinion article published yesterday excoriates the Obama administration for its perceived lack of resolve on the Iranian nuclear issue. The President's approach, the Journal argues, has been too wavering and hasn't had enough of a definitive impact on Iranian policy. The U.N. sanctions, the Journal argues, should have been sidelined in favor of American sanctions in tandem with allies such as France and the United Kingdom. The article neglects to enumerate precisely how American sanctions would halt or even delay Iran's nuclear program whatsoever.

The article continues, attacking President Obama for his recent diplomatic tension with America's regional ally Israel, which the Journal feels has de-fanged the threat of increased sanctions further. "All of these actions suggest to us that Mr. Obama has concluded that a nuclear Iran is inevitable, even if he can't or won't admit it publicly." The opinion piece closes by saying that President Bush is also to blame for neglecting to let Israel "act more firmly" during his term, presumably an allusion to a military strike. Evidently the authors of the article have not read the myriad studies and analyses indicating the explosive and unpredictable consequences of engaging in a conflict with Iran, or the fact that such a strike at this point may only briefly delay the program, if at all.

The article accuses President Obama of "acting as if he believes a nuclear Tehran is inevitable." Given the uncertainty of the efficacy of air strikes, and the lack of support for sweeping sanctions from P5 members Russia and China, accepting a nuclear Iran may not be a matter of choice for President Obama, but a matter of realism.

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