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By Barry Rubin

The new sanctions proposed by the U.S. government, and reportedly accepted by the other permanent members of the UN Security Council—Britain, China, France, and Russia—will make it harder for Iran to get arms and slightly more difficult for it to get foreign investment. Yet at this stage of the process, they hardly match Iran’s determination to obtain nuclear weapons. Many will argue that this is the best outcome the Obama Administration could get with its approach. Perhaps true, but this shows the strategy is a problem.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says these are the “toughest sanctions to date.” though But they are significantly weaker than what has been discussed earlier even by the U.S. government, far weaker than what Congress proposes. And the draft proposal may be watered down even further to win broader support in the UN vote.
Briefly, while we all know that sanctions–at least these sanctions–will stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons that doesn’t mean that a sanctions’ effort is useless:

  1.  If Iran can be stopped from getting advanced anti-aircraft missiles this is good.
  2. If it’s effort to build missiles and nuclear weapons is slowed down, that is good. Though at this point the sanctions won’t do that much in that direction.
  3. Sanctions could have scared Iran into being more cautious. These sanctions won’t do that.
  4. Sanctions set up the basis for containment. The stronger the sanctions. the more persuasive the pressure of containment. Unfortunately, these sanctions are unlikely to increase U.S. leverage and credibility very much in a post-nuclear Iran situation.

Here’s what’s really happened: The Obama Administration took about 18 months to do precisely what it promised: a. try engagement; b. increase sanctions. The resolution basically gives the UN seal of approval for greater efforts by Western states.
The question is whether it was worth 18 months to get the UN seal of approval. Obviously, Turkey, Lebanon, Brazil and lots of other countries–that is the same ones convinced 18 months ago against strong action–were not persuaded by the U.S. strategy.

An alternative U.S. strategy could have worked with supportive allies—including Britain, France, and Germany to have tougher sanctions months ago. This would not only hit Iran harder but also signal other countries that they should follow the U.S. example. Instead, the Obama Administration acted in a multilateral context, more as a first among equals rather than as a leader, but the result is a far weaker and more ineffective outcome.
There are additional problems:

First, the sanctions imposed will be violated. To cite a past example, there were sanctions on arms’ shipments to Iraq after 1991. But when U.S. forces invaded the country in 2003 they found that China had supplied equipment, including anti-aircraft systems. No U.S. or UN diplomatic action was ever taken regarding this violation.

Second, if one actually reads the resolution’s text, the actual provisions are weaker than much of the media coverage makes them seem. The New York Times actually misstates the plan by making voluntary actions sound as if they are mandatory. I’ll get back to that in a second.

Even the New York Times notes: “Like the three resolutions that preceded it, it is probably not tough enough to change minds in Tehran. But the fact that Russia and China — Iran’s longtime enablers — have signed on is likely to make some players in Iran’s embattled government nervous. (We know we can’t wait to hear what changed Beijing’s mind.)”

Hey, there’s no need to wait. The Wall Street Journal provides the answer: “Many provisions contain loopholes allowing countries to evade their intent: They only urge, rather than require, countries to comply.” And that’s what changed Beijing’s mind: the proposal will have no effect on its behavior.

So what’s in the draft resolution? As always, it’s important to read the actual document to see what it says. There’s a lot of exhortation about what Iran should do. There is more of Canute than of Moses, that is the sea is commanded to roll back but without much hope this will happen. For example it tells Iran not to:

“Begin construction on any new uranium enrichment, reprocessing, or heavy water-related facility and shall discontinue any ongoing construction of any [such places].”

And what if Iran does so any way? Will there be a new resolution after it gets nuclear weapons?

The same applies to the provision that the Security Council “decides” that Iran won’t build “missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.”
There is a difference between making demands and doing something to ensure that the other side yields to them.

More materially the resolution provides:

  • Iran shouldn’t buy part of companies in other countries that do uranium mining, nuclear production, or missile technology. Nice, but it has just purchased and smuggled material it needs and already has the needed fixings thanks to Pakistan, North Korea, China, perhaps Russia, and some others.
  • Countries will stop the sale of military equipment—including planes, artillery, tanks, and helicopters–to Iran and won’t let such shipments pass through their territory. This is perhaps the most impressive aspect and the single best thing that will come out of this is that Russia cannot sell advanced anti-aircraft missiles to Iran. For some weapons’ systems, though, smuggling, probably from China, will probably continue.
  • The other main argument that can be made on behalf of the sanctions’ proposal is that it enables individual countries to use a UN resolution to justify their stopping exports to Iran of anything that could be used for nuclear weapons or arming the country, as well as loans or insurance that would benefit institutions associated with the nuclear program.
  • Countries won’t let in designated individuals, that is specific people involved in building nuclear weapons for Iran including some particular Islamic Revolutioniary Guard Corps officials. I guess they can just keep sending different people as needed.
  • The most confusing provision is that states ought to “inspect,” in accord with their own law, cargo to and from Iran that they have reasonable cause to believe” includes nuclear weapons’ related material, “may request” inspections of Iranian vessels if the country in which the ship is registered agrees, and can refuse port facilities to such ships. If they find such material they can seize it.
  • Finally, it “calls” upon states not to allow financial services or insurance to those involved in selling nuclear or missile-related stuff to Iran.

That’s it, what we’ve been waiting for these last eighteen months.

This is not such a bad proposal in the abstract but it is in the specific context facing the world in the summer of 2010. The time available to stop Iran’s program isn’t infinite. But a different U.S. strategy could have done all the same things with allied countries a year ago and then worked on a UN resolution later. It was the Obama Administrations’ determination to show itself multilateral and an equal–rather than a leader–that inspired this costly strategy. The point is that this resolution as such will not force or inspire a single country to take tougher measures that wouldn’t have done so any way.

Now, what is the most important point of all regarding this resolution? It is slamming the barn door after the horse has already run out. The effort is to keep Iran from getting more equipment for its nuclear and missile program at a time when Tehran already has most of what it needs and the rest can be smuggled in or provided by countries—North Korea, Pakistan, Syria, and probably China—that will break the provisions.

In short, it is a law enforcement measure rather than a strategic political measure. The exception here is the provision regarding arms’ sales which is going to be very interesting to watch.

But Iran’s economy is not seriously constricted, not even very much inconvenienced. That’s why doing such things as shutting down its oil and other energy industries, as the U.S. Congress advocates, is so important. Instead, the proposed plan would be more appropriate for combatting drug smugglers than a radical state which threatens regional, and hence, world stability.

The problem is not just (or so much) that the plan is a weak one but that it is focused on inhibiting the speed of the nuclear program rather than pressuring Iran by raising the cost of building nuclear weapons sky-high.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; The West and the Middle East (four volumes); and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

Gloria Center Depends on your contributions. To make a tax-deductible donation through PayPal or credit card, click the Donate button in the upper-right hand corner of this page. Donations by check: To “American Friends of IDC,” with “for GLORIA Center” on memo line. Mail: American Friends of IDC, 116 East 16th Street, 11th Floor, New York, NY 10003.
Note: A different version of this article is published on Pajamas Media.

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