Published in Israel Hayom, December 19, 2013.
One day, the U.S. says sanctions will force Iran to relinquish its nuclear program. The next, it says delaying sanctions will make Iran more amenable to shutting down its program. Confusing, isn’t it?
The Obama administration’s attitude on sanctions against Iran has been and continues to be riddled with contradictions. One day it is opposed to sanctions; the next day it brags about them. One day it is easing up on sanctions; the next it claims to be tightening enforcement of them. One day it says that sanctions will make Iran give up its nuclear program; the next it says that holding off sanctions will make Iran more likely to give up its nuclear program.
Let’s review the administration’s tortured and convoluted path on sanctions:
1. In the beginning, the Obama administration had to be coerced by Congress into sanctioning Iran. It worked against successive congressional efforts to ramp up sanctions against Iran in the oil, banking, and shipping sectors. Congress dragged a kicking and screaming administration into eventual support for sanctions.
In fact, the administration only warmed to sanctions when it realized that upping sanctions against Iran was one way to buy time and prevent Israel from attacking Iran.
2. Then, behind everybody’s back, the administration secretly eased-up on enforcement of the hard-won sanctions, as it conducted months of under-the-radar talks with representatives of Ayatollah Khameini. This was even before Hassan Rouhani was elected as the new Iranian president.
3. More recently, Obama justified the goodies given to Iran in Geneva (reductions in several different types of sanctions) by arguing that ‘sanctions relief’ will create moderate Iranians. He says that the let-up in sanctions will create a ‘political constituency’ within Iran for nuclear concessions.
For most Mideast observers, in Israel and elsewhere, this is counterintuitive and nonsensical. Who can really believe that alleviating the sanctions pressure will make Iran more (rather than less) amenable to giving up its military nuclear effort?
This is especially so, given the fact that Iran is apparently getting much more sanction relief than the administration was first willing to admit to. The entire regime of sanctions could effectively melt away as the international business community realizes that Washington’s heart is no longer behind sanctions.
4. Under withering criticism from Congress for the sell-out in Geneva, this week the administration announced that while it plans to ease some sanctions against Iran as per the Geneva deal, it will act to expand the list of businesses targeted for prosecution for doing business in still-prohibited areas. In other words, the administration says that it will increase its sanction enforcement efforts.
I’m not sure this counts as scaling-up enforcement, or scaling down the easing-up of enforcement it secretly put into place over the past year.
Confusing, isn’t it?
In any case, the Iranians loudly objected to this (which is what the administration was hoping for). Not only are the Iranians holding Washington to its promise not to impose any new sanctions; they also clearly expect Washington to shy away from enforcement of existing sanctions.
5. Looking forward, we must ask: What if the P5+1 can’t reach agreement with Teheran on a permanent accord six months from now? What if the talks fail? Well, Obama says that sanctions will be re-imposed and additional sanctions could be considered as well.
But just who determines the ‘failure’ of these talks? I bet you that the administration will never admit to a breakdown or failure of the talks, but rather say that negotiations are ongoing. It is highly unlikely that the administration will declare its treasured gambit for détente with Iran a failure. And if there is no “failure,” there will be no renewed or expanded sanctions.
And there you have it: The rise and fall of the sanctions effort.