Iran Sanctions’ Effectiveness Widely Questioned

While top U.S. officials touted the U.N. Security Council’s approval Wednesday of a new sanctions resolution against Iran as a major diplomatic breakthrough, most nuclear and Iran specialists say it is unlikely to be effective and could prove counterproductive.

Even if, as expected, they are followed up by additional unilateral sanctions on the part of both the United States and the members of the European Union (EU), the aim of persuading Iran to curb its nuclear program is unlikely to be achieved, according to these experts. 

"It’s almost impossible to find anyone here in Washington who believes sanctions will make any difference," noted Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who worked on Iran issues under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush at a forum on Iran at the Wilson International Center for Scholars Monday. 

"The Iranian leadership has demonstrated that under pressure they are most averse to compromise," she added, noting that the Islamic Republic has faced much more formidable diplomatic and economic pressures in its 31-year history, particularly during the Iran-Iraq War and when the price of oil fell to record lows. 

Other analysts said the new sanctions, particularly if combined with additional U.S. and EU measures directed at Iran’s financial and energy sectors, are likely to strengthen hard-liners in Tehran and rally nationalist sentiment behind them. 

The new resolution, the fourth aimed at getting Iran to freeze its uranium enrichment program since 2006, forbids U.N. members from transferring most conventional arms sales to Iran, calls for greater scrutiny of Iran’s overseas banking operations, adds more Iranian companies and individuals to a U.N. blacklist, and authorizes countries to stop and inspect Iran-bound ships suspected of carrying cargo connected to Tehran’s nuclear program 

The resolution, a top priority of the Barack Obama administration for the past six months, passed by a margin of 14 to two, with Lebanon abstaining. Previous sanctions resolutions against Iran were passed unanimously. 

The two no votes were cast by Turkey and Brazil, which last month jointly negotiated an accord with Tehran under which the latter would transfer about half its low-enriched uranium (LEU) stockpile to Turkey as a confidence-building measure designed to facilitate the resumption of talks between Iran and the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany (P5+1). 

While a statement issued by the P5+1 foreign ministers after passage of the resolution expressed appreciation for the Brazilian-Turkish initiative, it did not indicate any interest in following up. 

Indeed, according to one report, Washington sent a confidential negative response to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to which the Brazilian-Turkish initiative was directed on the eve of Wednesday’s vote, although one senior U.S. official, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns, told reporters Wednesday the accord was still being discussed. 

"Today’s events are likely a setback for resolving the nuclear issue," said Jamal Abdi, policy director for the National Iranian American Council. "There are fears that this may mark the United States’ return to the (George W.) Bush paradigm in which we apply pressure for pressure’s sake and squander opportunities for engagement in favor of talking tough." 

While the P5+1’s ministers also stressed their eagerness to resume talks with Tehran based on earlier proposals, at least one of which is similar to the Brazilian-Turkish initiative "at the earliest opportunity", observers here expressed skepticism. 

"I see the P5+1 statement inviting further dialogue as just a fig leaf for a policy of confrontation," said Jim Fine, a regional specialist at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker lobby group. 

"Now Congress is certain to go ahead with energy sanctions. Overall, I think this will put Iran in an uglier mood, reinforce the hard-liners, and move us closer to military confrontation," he said. 

As to the new U.N. sanctions themselves, analysts here disagreed with Obama’s characterization of them as "the toughest sanctions ever faced by the Iranian government." 

In a draft resolution circulated in March, Washington had asked for mandatory sanctions denying Iran access to international banking services, capital markets and access to international airspace and waters for its commercial trade. Those provisions were deleted early in P5 discussions at the insistence of Russia and China, which succeeded in further diluting the resolution over the following three months. Indeed, most of the restrictions included in the final draft are voluntary. 

"As a result, the resolution is not strong enough to change Iran’s strategic calculation any more than the three resolutions that preceded it," according to an article posted by Christopher Wall, an international lawyer who served as assistant secretary of commerce for export administration under Bush, on

"The U.N. sanctions against Iran have been watered down to almost nothing," he added. 

That assessment was echoed by Flynt and Hillary Leverett, Iran specialists under both Clinton and Bush, who have long argued for a "grand bargain" with Iran on a host of issues and criticized Obama for not breaking decisively with Bush’s policy. They called the new resolution "remarkably weak." 

Meanwhile, Democratic leaders in Congress said a conference committee set up to reconcile versions of a unilateral sanctions bill passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate earlier this year will wrap up its work and send a final version to Obama by the end of the month. That bill is certain to include penalties on third companies of third countries that do business with Iran, particularly in the energy and telecommunications sectors. 

"We now look to the European Union and other key nations that share our deep concern about Iran’s nuclear intentions to build on the Security Council resolution by imposing tougher national measures that will deepen Iran’s isolation and, hopefully, bring the Iranian leadership to its senses," said Rep. Howard Berman, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. 

"The (Barack) Obama administration has indicated that it anticipates these provisions will provide a legal basis for other states — like members of the European Union and Japan — to enact tougher national sanctions of their own," the Leveretts wrote in a post on their website,

"But the United States is not going to get anything approaching universal compliance with these ‘optional’ sanctions," they added. "The net effect will be to accelerate the reallocation of business opportunities in the Islamic Republic from Western states to China and other non- Western powers." 

Moreover, according to Maloney, additional unilateral sanctions, notably those favored by Congress to penalize companies that export refined oil products, such as gasoline, to Iran, "will make it more difficult to get follow-up actions by the international community."

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.