Wednesday, February 10, 2010

New York Times Says: Time’s Up for Sanctions with Iran. But the Obama Administration isn’t Ready

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By Barry Rubin

The New York Times has a new editorial on Iran, February 9, and it is probably the best one yet. Naturally, it is phrased in ways friendly toward the Obama administration, though a note of impatience appears. Nevertheless, there’s an explosive device contained within it that the writers probably didn’t even notice. Don’t stop reading until you get to it.

In this case, the title tells all: “Time’s Up.” Paragraph 1:

“Over the last four years, the United Nations Security Council has repeatedly demanded that Iran stop producing nuclear fuel. Iran is still churning out enriched uranium and has now told United Nations inspectors that it is raising the level of enrichment — moving slightly closer to bomb-grade quality.”

This is fine as far as it goes, but notice it puts the onus on the UN Security Council. The Obama Administration has only had one of those years but it has not led in taking any real action--last September in his big speech there he didn't ask the Security Council to do anything--so this paragraph could just as easily have been directed at the president. No, that’s not the bomb.

Then, the second paragraph tells us what a great job the president has been doing:

“ President Obama was right to offer to negotiate with Tehran. Washington and its allies were right to look for possible compromises even after Tehran was caught—again—hiding an enrichment plant.”

OK, so he tried and it didn’t work (though this has been clear now for five months). Then the Times gives the conclusion: “Enough is enough. Iran needs to understand that its nuclear ambition comes with a very high cost.”

Here’s the bomb:

“President Obama said on Tuesday that the United States and its allies are `moving along fairly quickly’ on a new sanctions resolution. He also said it would take several weeks to draft a proposal. That is not reassuring. Once a resolution is written, the negotiating process typically drags on for weeks, if not months.”

Right. After dealing with this issue for a year, as of mid-February the Obama administration has not yet started drafting a proposal for the UN, despite his own September deadline, despite his own December deadline, no one has had time to plan the next step? Why wasn’t a draft resolution set in early January when it was clear that it would be needed? In other words, with luck there won’t be a resolution before the middle of the year.

Part of the answer is that the Obama administration is all carrots, no sticks. A different president would have said while engaging Iran: and by the way if you don't make a deal here's specifically what we are going to do to you. But Obama and his colleagues didn't do it that way, not even preparing to get tough behind the scenes.

There are also two serious weaknesses in the Times editorial that point to flaws in administration policy. Here’s the first:

“American officials say they are eager to impose sanctions that would inflict maximum damage on the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which runs the nuclear program and a large chunk of the Iranian economy. The plan, as we understand it, is to block their banking, their shipping, their insurance. American officials also say they want to minimize the additional suffering of the Iranian people. That makes sense to us, although squaring the circle won’t be easy.”

Well, it makes no sense to me, and won’t scare Tehran. Think about it a moment. Does the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps do much business in America or Europe? Can’t they create dummy companies and easily move things around? Isn’t this a small part of the overall Iranian internationally connected economy? In short, this plan is toothless and worthless.

Here's the truth: anything that hurts Iran's economy will hurt Iran's people. The Obama administration assumes that this would make them blame America and support the regime, rather than blame the regime and want to get rid of it. One can debate that issue but once you've decided to minimize damage that means the regime can ignore the pinpricks. The administration thinks it is smart and has a policy that is perfect. In fact, it is a policy that will inevitably fail in every respect.

Note the Times doesn’t even mention the congressional plan for sanctions which is much better: block gasoline and other fuels. How can it discuss the issue without considering the only plan actually on the table right now, and endorsed by both houses of Congress for that matter?

Second, the editorial remarks that there are big problems with Russia and China supporting sanctions without mentioning that for a year the Obama administration—and on several occasions the Times itself—has been assuring us that this won’t be a problem. I remember back in September that the Times editorial praised as a great achievement the fact that Obama persuaded the Russians to think about sanctions. They thought about it and are against them.

Now China is building a huge refinery in Iran, just announced a new offshore oil-drilling project there, and has moved up to the top of those trading with Iran. Yet the Obama administration acts as if it is possible to overcome Chinese and Russian opposition with any serious sanctions. It isn’t. And what possible leverage has the administration built up to pressure these two countries? None at all.

So, to summarize, we know the following:

--The Obama administration has been slow in dealing with an urgent issue, one in which every day counts, using all possible excuses for delay.

--It has pretended that Russia and China will be won over and now it is clear that this won't work.

--The U.S. government's specific sanctions' plan is bad to start with.

--The UN process will whittle it down further.

--Many months will be required to get it through and when it does the sanctions will be too minimal to have any effect.

--A lot of the problem is that this U.S. government has rejected leadership in favor of consensus and renounced taking action on its own in favor of multilateralism.

--It intends to ignore a good plan which has massive support in Congress.

--The U.S. government hasn't prepared its resolution yet and (as we will see in a moment) does not have a back-up plan in place. If it fails at the UN, it will then have to start from near-beginning to get the entire EU (including countries like Sweden and Spain) to support some form of sanctions, which will also be delayed and whittled down.

The editorial concludes:

“The more the Security Council temporizes, compromises and weakens these resolutions, the more defiant and ambitious Iran becomes. If the Security Council can’t act swiftly, or decisively, the United States and its allies will have to come up with their own tough sanctions. They should be making a backup plan right now.”

Make a backup plan right now? What have they been doing for the past year? Can you imagine how this failure would be presented with any other president in office?

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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