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How the Obama Administration Can Get Serious About Iran Sanctions

And stop Iran from getting nukes.

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It also bears noting that in enforcing energy sanctions, State Department officials have the unenviable task of investigating opaque contracting and business practices, which international companies have developed over decades to hide their nefarious activities. To impose sanctions, these officials need reliable information, are justifiably loath to make errors by rushing to judgment, and must navigate mind-numbing bureaucracies in which the interests of corporations and governments often conflict.

Yet Congress remains justifiably concerned.  On March 29, after the Belarusneft designation announcement, Senators Mark Kirk, Joseph Lieberman and Jon Kyl sent Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner a letter expressing disappointment over what they see as the lack of “full compliance with the sanctions regime put in place by Congress.” The senators wrote that they are “deeply concerned with what appear to be sanctionable activities by other entities involving energy investments in Iran, the provision of refined petroleum products to Iran, financial relationships with Iran, as well as the regime's proliferation activities.”

A number of major international companies from Turkey, China, Venezuela, and elsewhere remain active in Iran, and continue to sign new deals. In a letter to Secretary Clinton in March 2011, 10 senators identified China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), the China Petroleum & Chemical Corporation (SINOPEC), China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), Zhuhai Zhen Rong of China, Tupras of Turkey, the PDVSA trading unit of Venezuela, and Unipec of China, amongst other companies, as potential violators.  The administration understands that the business dealings of these companies and others are of far greater consequence than those of Belarusneft.

In addition to imposing serious sanctions, the administration would be advised to communicate more effectively with the Hill and the non-governmental organizations that support its cause. One source who asked to remain anonymous suggested that the choice of a Belarusian company had more to do with the “ripeness” of the information than any deliberate strategy to focus on easy targets and avoid difficult choices on tough ones.

The administration should also identify loopholes in Iran sanctions laws and move quickly to fill them by executive order. The sanctions game is a dynamic one, and every U.S. measure produces an Iranian countermeasure. Executive orders are finer and more nimble instruments than legislation, and the administration can use them to show that it is serious about enforcing the law.

In the end, though, the time for an incremental approach has come and gone. Only tough sanctions against meaningful targets will inspire confidence that the administration is committed to exhausting every means short of war to stop Iran from building a nuclear weapon.

Mark Dubowitz is executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and head of its Iran Energy Project. Laura Grossman is a senior research analyst for FDD’s Iran Energy Project.

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