Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Anticlimax: Sanctions on Iran, (Slightly) Increased at Last

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By Barry Rubin

After more than 16 months in office, the Obama Administration has gotten through the UN a new set of sanctions on Iran. In theory, this should be a moment of great triumph for the U.S. government and yet there is something curiously anticlimactic about it.

That atmosphere is symbolized by the New York Times, which has often seemed to be the administration’s chief cheerleader, calling them ,“A modest increase from previous rounds….Even restricting a few dozen additional companies seemed unlikely to cause serious pressure given the size and growth of the oil-rich Iranian economy.”

While thirteen countries—including Russia and China—voted for the plan, Turkey and Brazil voted against and Lebanon abstained.

The fact that Turkey and Brazil aligned themselves with Iran says something rather significant, marking another step in their open antagonism to the United States. Even Lebanon, where Hizballah—an Iranian client—is in the coalition government abstained! But don't worry, the New York Times assures us that Turkey's Prime Minister Erdogan is a "pragmatist." Guess they haven't noticed much in the last few years in that regard.

Supposedly, the next step is that the United States and European Union countries will enact much tougher sanctions. Remember the Obama Administration strategy was to get the UN’s approval before acting rather than the other way around. I understand that this is a reaction to the real or supposed failures of the Bush Administration, but if the United States had acted eight months ago with a number of willing allies that would hardly have been unilateral.

At any rate, we will see if stronger sanctions do happen afterward. I’m somewhat doubtful for this reason: the Obama Administration keeps stressing how it doesn’t want to hurt Iran’s people by really damaging the economy. So how can it even support the congressional proposals for serious sanctions.

So let’s see. The United States says it wants sanctions against Iran, inspections of goods on the way to Iran, and isolation of Iran. And not just stopping the import of weapons but anything that might be used to build weapons.Sound familiar? Like Israel and the Gaza Strip. If a bunch of misguided humanitarians accompanied by Jihad warriors send a ship and the U.S. Navy is ordered to inspect it, and they resist and attack American soldiers, can we expect worldwide condemnation of America to follow?

As for these sanctions, I’ve analyzed them previously here. But even the New York Times admits that “the main thrust of the sanctions is against military, trade and financial transactions carried out by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps” and forty individuals as well as forty Iranian companies to be blacklisted. Measures regarding Iran’s Central Bank and oil industry are weak.

But ask yourself this question: On a scale of 1 to 100, how much do these sanctions:

A. Increase material pressure on Iran by weakening its economy (which relates to internal support for the regime and assets useable for military purposes), and

B. Intimidate it by making the regime fearful of an international threat so that it will back down. Note: in past years, though not now, there were some leaders and factions that genuinely feared heavy U.S. pressure or even attack (unlikely but that was their perception) and so advised caution. They are out of power now and those remaining feel that the threats have genuinely proven to be empty.

In this contact, I'd guess the number "1" out of 100 is accurate.

So this is a Pyrrhic victory, a phrase named after an ancient general who won a battle at such cost that he lost the war. This is a “victory” that allows the administration to claim, to an increasingly skeptical audience, that it has won something. It is also a “victory” whose limits may create a future war.

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 (PalgraveMacmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; The West and the Middle East (four volumes); 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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