More Sanctions, More Insanity

As regular readers of know, one of my favorite things to cite is the definition on insanity attributed to Albert Einstein: to keep doing the same thing but expect different results.  Yet that is exactly what the Obama administration is contemplating as the president prepares to meet with representatives from the other four permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (Russia, China, Britain, and France), as well as Germany, to discuss what to do next in response to Iran’s refusal to halt it’s nuclear program.

In October, Iran tentatively agreed to a deal whereby it ship would low-enriched uranium to Russia and France for processing into medium-enriched uranium, which would then be returned to Iran to be used to power a research reactor in Tehran that produces medical isotopes.  The goal of such a deal was to effectively stall Iran’s ability to produce highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon, while allowing Iran to make isotopes for the treatment of cancer and other medical purposes.  Subsequently, the regime in Tehran has balked at the deal and now wants any such swap to be done inside the country.

According to President Obama, "we have begun discussions with our international partners about the importance of having consequences" and "that over the next several weeks we will be developing a package of potential steps that we could take that will indicate our seriousness to Iran."  In other words, sanctions.

Yet history shows that sanctions don’t work as a way to change the behavior of a recalcitrant regime.  Iraq under Saddam Hussein was severely sanctioned by the international community – but that didn’t cause him to become a model citizen.  Similarly, North Korea has been sanctioned – but that didn’t stop Pyongyang from developing a nuclear weapon.

The United States has been imposing various sanctions on Iran since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, for example:

  • Freezing about $12 billion in Iranian assets, including bank deposits, gold and other properties after Iranian students seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held hostages for 444 days
  • During the Iran-Iraq War (when Saddam Hussein was "our guy" and not the club president of the axis of evil), sanctions were approved to oppose all loans to Iran from international financial institutions, prohibit weapons sales, and prohibit all assistance to Iran
  • The Clinton-era Iran-Libya Sanctions Act called for imposition of two out of seven possible sanctions against all foreign companies that provided investments over $20 million for the development of petroleum resources in Iran:
    • Denial of Export-Import Bank assistance
    • Denial of export licenses for exports to the violating company
    • Prohibition on loans or credits from U.S. financial institutions of over $10 million in any 12-month period
    • Prohibition on designation as a primary dealer for U.S. government debt instruments
    • Prohibition on serving as an agent of the United States or as a repository for U.S. government funds
    • Denial of U.S. government procurement opportunities (consistent with WTO obligations)
    • A ban on all or some imports of the violating company
  • After Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president and resurrected Iran’s nuclear program, the Bush 42 administration began to impose sanctions on Iranian banks, including the prohibiting following Iranian banks from transferring money to American banks:
    • Bank Sepah
    • Bank Saderat Iran
    • Bank Melli Iran
    • Bank Kargoshaee (aka Kargosa’i Bank)
    • Arian Bank (aka Aryan Bank)
    • Bank Mella
    • Persia International Bank PLC
  • Although not sanctions, earlier this month federal prosecutors moved to seize several U.S. assets allegedly controlled by entities linked to the government of Iran, including a mosque and Islamic school in Potomac, MD, land in Prince William County, MD and a Manhattan skyscraper.

Why Obama believes new sanctions will work where old ones have failed over the last 30 years is the very definition of insanity according to Einstein.

Not only are sanctions not likely to achieve the desired outcome (since successive Iranian regimes have not shown themselves to be Pavlov’s dogs), they are more likely to put at risk the general population rather than affecting the leaders of the government.  For example, U.S. aircraft manufacturer Boeing is prohibited from selling aircraft to Iranian aviation companies.  According to the International Civil Aviation Organization, that sanction places civilian lives in danger by denying Iranian aviation necessary spare parts for aircraft repair.  More importantly, the likely reaction of the ruling regime is to transfer the effects of any sanctions to the civilian population.  For example, critics of the sanctions placed on Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War argue that the sanctions contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis (largely children) due to disease from lack of clean water from banned manufacture and restricted import of chlorine, lack of medicine, impoverishment, and other factors.  Meanwhile, Saddam Hussein stayed in power and continued to live in the lap of luxury.

Although Iran continues to claim that it is pursuing a peaceful nuclear power program, it’s naïve to believe that Tehran isn’t also interested in developing a nuclear weapons capability.  And there is no reason whatsoever to believe that the Iranian regime can be punished via sanctions into giving up those nuclear aspirations.  Why?  Because sanctions don’t address their motivations for wanting nuclear weapons.

To begin, Israel has nuclear weapons (although the Israeli government officially neither confirms nor denies whether it has such weapons).  Since Iran and Israel aren’t on the best of terms, it’s perfectly logical that the Iranians would want a nuclear capability to offset and deter Israel’s nukes.  Indeed, that’s exactly why Pakistan developed nuclear weapons when its neighbor India joined the nuclear club.  Another compelling reason for Iran to want nukes is to deter the United States from engaging in regime change.  After all, what are the two things that Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein had in common?  No nukes.  Contrast that with Kim Jong Il in North Korea who has nukes and hasn’t been invaded by the United States.  [Note that the above is not an argument that Iran should be able to have nuclear weapons, but that we need to understand their motivations for wanting them.]

There was time – long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away – when it might have been possible to negotiate a security guarantee with the Iranians in exchange for constraining their nuclear program.  That moment was in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 when Iran appeared willing to cooperate with the United States against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.  And the opportunity was thrown out the window with the Bush administration decided to invade Iraq in 2003.

So if sanctions won’t work, what options do the Obama administration have?  Not good ones.

One is military action – whether limited or a full-scale invasion.  Limited military strikes might be able to set back Iran’s nuclear program, but are not likely to eliminate it.  Plus the Iranians would be even more motivated and would probably redouble their efforts.  A full-scale invasion (which would be nearly impossible for the U.S. military already stretched thin by Iraq and Afghanistan) would mean another Pottery Barn "you broke it, you bought it" situation for the United States and occupation of yet another Muslim country – which would be just more fuel on the fire of radical Islam.

The other is accepting Iran as a nuclear weapons power (just as we have had to accept North Korea).  This is certainly not the ideal or preferred outcome.  But it may be one we have to learn to live with.  Unless the regime in Tehran is suicidal (and they’ve shown no evidence of being such), Iran can be deterred from using nuclear weapons (either against Israel or the United States).  And while we would have to be concerned about the possibility of transfer of nuclear weapons to terrorists, the "good news" is that no regime that has acquired any dreaded WMD capability (chemical or biological) has ever given those weapons to terrorists.

Finally, there’s this to ponder:  Maybe we should be more concerned about the nuclear weapons Pakistan has (which have a more realistic chance of falling into the hands of terrorists should the Zardari government fall and be succeeded by a radical Islamist government) than the nuclear weapons Iran doesn’t have.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.