Sanctions Won't Work against Iran

Last week, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Mohamed elBaradei attempted to whitewash Iran's nuclear weapons program by issuing a report ignoring substantial information about weaponization activities and downplaying continued noncooperation.

Even the Obama administration apparently now understands that resuming the long-stalled "Permanent-Five plus-one" negotiations (the U.N. Security Council's permanent members plus Germany) with Iran is highly unlikely to halt Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

Accordingly, President Obama is readying two alternatives. One is to characterize "freezing" Iran's nuclear program at existing levels as a "success." However, this less than complete termination of Iran's nuclear program would run contrary to years of determined clandestine efforts. Such a freeze is utterly unverifiable and amounts to surrender. This will result in a nuclear-armed Iran.

The other Obama administration ploy is "strong sanctions" imposed by the United States and other countries. This will also be a "success" only in the sense that it will allow the administration to claim a win. It won't actually prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

One idea for robust sanctions now before Congress is to prohibit exports of refined petroleum products--such as gasoline--to Iran. Today, Iran imports 40% of its daily refined petroleum consumption. Other proposals include international financial and insurance-related sanctions.

These ideas are well-intentioned and worth pursuing. If imposed, they will create shortages that will likely increase internal dissatisfaction with Iran's regime, thereby hopefully contributing to its ultimate demise. But no one should believe that tighter sanctions will, in the foreseeable future, have any impact on Iran's nuclear weapons program.

Six years ago more stringent measures against Iran might have worked, but today they are an idea whose time has come and gone. Their inadequacy stems from several causes.

First, the U.N. Security Council is no more likely now to approve strict sanctions against Iran than in the past. The prospects for Russian and Chinese support are between slim and none, since endorsing sanctions would harm their own economic and political interests in Iran. The most to expect from the council is a fourth sanctions resolution, as weak and ineffective as its predecessors, and only after weeks or months of agonizing negotiations.

Second, for those who understand the Security Council reality, most talk of enhanced sanctions envisages a coalition of the willing, consisting essentially of America, Japan and the European Union. But the EU's record to date, and Japan's likely policy under its new government (soon to be run by the Democratic Party of Japan), are hardly likely to produce a stiff, serious and sustained effort. Iran itself will offer countless reasons why sanctions should be suspended, reduced or ignored, and a disquieting amalgam of Western governments, businesses and commentators will agree at every step. It is very likely that EU resolve will fracture and Japan will follow suit. Moreover, many other countries will use the lack of a Security Council imprimatur to conduct business with Tehran, shredding the coalition's sanctions, and thereby weakening EU resolve still further.

Third, Iran is hardly standing idly by while sanctions that target its refined petroleum products are debated by the U.S. and other countries. Tehran's leaders are acutely aware of their vulnerability and are moving to address it. Iran, with extensive Chinese involvement, has already begun building new refineries and expanding existing facilities with the aim of approximately doubling domestic capacity by 2012. This will more than compensate for its current refining shortfall. Whether Iran can complete these projects on schedule remains to be seen, but the level of effort is intense and serious.

Tehran is also eliminating government subsidies that make retail gasoline cheaper than it otherwise would be. This will raise prices and thereby reduce consumption. Slashing consumer benefits is rarely popular, but this step alone will substantially reduce the pressure on Iran's refineries to produce. One can also be sure that the Revolutionary Guards' access to gasoline will not be diminished. Iran claims to have substantially increased its strategic gasoline reserves over the past year (though that increase has not been confirmed).

Most significantly, Iran's estimated natural gas reserves (948 trillion cubic feet in 2008) are second only to Russia's, and more than quadruple the U.S.'s. Here is "energy independence" for Iran that would make T. Boone Pickens envious, since relatively small capital expenditures can refit large motor-vehicle fleets (such as Iran's military and security services) to run on compressed natural gas. Iran also plans to increase subsidies for natural gas, thus diminishing consumer anger over lost gasoline subsidies.

For Washington, the question should not be whether "strict sanctions" will cause some economic harm despite Iran's multifarious, accelerating efforts to mitigate them. Instead, we must ask whether that harm will be sufficient to dissuade Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons. Objectively, there is no reason to believe that it will.

Adopting tougher economic sanctions is simply another detour away from hard decisions on whether to accept a nuclear Iran or support using force to prevent it.

John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.

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