The Sanctions Trap

The Bush administration had been advertising the "Berlin Sanctions Summit" on Iran as a validation of their long-standing policy of seeking to isolate the Islamic Republic politically and economically in the face of Tehran’s ongoing refusal to submit to the will of the United Nations Security Council when it comes to the matter of suspending Iran’s uranium enrichment program. The diplomatic push undertaken by the United States was considerable, replete with a fabricated "confrontation" between Iranian and US Navy forces in the Straights of Hormuz on the eve of President Bush’s visit to Israel and the Gulf Arab nations. In Israel the President talked the talk of war, sitting down with Israeli policy makers to plot out the mechanism of militarily interdicting and neutralizing Iran’s nuclear ambition, and with the Gulf Arabs he outlined the American position of Iran being the world’s largest state sponsor of terror, imploring his ostensible Arab allies to stay the course in creating a Sunni counter to the mythical "Shi’a Crescent" which threatens all. Left unsaid in all of this was the visit to Tehran by the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Dr. Mohammed ElBaradei, where in a series of meetings with the most senior leadership in Iran, including the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran and the IAEA strove to come to closure on all outstanding questions remaining concerning Iran’s nuclear program.

The gulf between the sanctions plotters in Berlin and the nuclear negotiators in Tehran is disconcerting. While the details of the language agreed upon for a new Security Council resolution remain secret, the United States and Great Britain are applauding the results of the Berlin summit largely because it keeps alive the process of Security Council "labeling" of Iran as non-compliant, even as the IAEA and Tehran reach an unprecedented level of cooperation. The Russians and Chinese continue to articulate their respective positions concerning sanctions and Iran, with the Russians in particular noting that there will be no "harsh" measures imposed against Iran. The gap between the Russian position, and that of the United States, which has lauded the agreed draft resolution as an affirmation of its hardline position against Iran’s nuclear ambitions, is startling.

Once again, the international community, in the form of the Security Council, has crafted a consensus document which will be defined not by its specific language, but rather by the various negotiating positions of those nations participating in the process of crafting the document. Like Security Council resolution 1441, which was passed by the Council in November 2002, on the eve of the US invasion of Iraq, the new Security Council resolution on Iran creates a scenario where one can make the case for or against action against Tehran with equal alacrity, dependent solely on the interpretation of the document’s "intent." The intent of the Russians is clear: the Security Council resolution is simply a facilitating vehicle to guard against any illicit nuclear activity while the IAEA and Iran bring to closure all unresolved issues. Likewise, the intent of the United States remains clear, using the growing number of Security Council resolutions passed under Chapter VII of the UN Charter as de facto evidence of the threat posed by Iran as well as the growing inability of the international community to effectively deal with these threats.

This, of course, is the crux of the quandary posed by the issue of sanctioning Iran: in a game defined by the principles of global consensus, the United States plays only by the rules of unilateral intervention. Russia and China, and to a lesser extent France, Great Britain and Germany, may view the sanctions as a vehicle for a diplomatic resolution of the issues. The United States views the sanctions as a means to a different end, this one culminating in the elimination of the theocratic regime in Tehran. The world fell into the sanctions trap when trying to deal with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, allowing the United States to distract everyone with the issue of WMD, all the while pushing for Saddam’s demise. The United States never had any intention of abiding by either the intent or letter of the law when it came to sanctioning Iraq. The only endgame possible was that which met the objectives of regime change in Baghdad.

Today, on the issue of Iran, the same "sanctions trap" has been set. By continuing to label Iran’s nuclear program as representing a threat to international peace and security worthy of Chapter VII attention, the Security Council helps sustain the fiction being promoted by the Bush administration of a dangerous nation which needs to be confronted at all costs. The day will come, in the not so distant future, when the United States will seek to cash in on the string of Chapter VII resolutions against Iran, building its case on the inevitability of Iranian non-compliance; Iran has already rejected the new draft sanctions as illegal, and has stated quite clearly its intent to push forward with its nuclear program in spite of the new sanctions. The Bush administration will be in a position to level a charge of global impotence in the face of a clearly defined threat, and to note that if the international community is unable or unwilling to confront this threat, then United States will have no choice but to take on this task in a unilateral fashion.

With the US military positioning itself operationally and logistically for action sometime this spring, and the level of rhetoric by President Bush and his advisors on Iran being hyped up to near fever pitch, the last thing the international community should be doing is facilitating conflict by helping sustain the logic of Iran as a threat at the very time Iran’s status as a nation compliant with international law is being certified. But the tragic genius of the "sanctions trap" is that, once initiated, it is virtually impossible to shut off. By putting the credibility of the Security Council on the line in imposing the sanctions regime against Iran, the members of the Council who view UN action as a means of containing US ambition and aggression have themselves allowed the issue of defending the will of the Council in the face of continued Iranian rejection of the Council’s decisions to become the central issue, and not the matter which led them to originally impose sanctions to begin with, that being Iran’s nuclear program. The "sanctions trap" is built upon the principles of hubris and procedure, not reason and fact. This is the reason the Bush administration continues to invest so heavily in this process, and why in the end the "sanctions trap," if not prematurely sprung, will in the end lead us to war with Iran . The message is simple: stop the sanctions, stop the war.