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The Use and Abuse of Sanctions

The Iranian bomb is all that matters.

Dec 9, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 13 • By LEE SMITH
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Here again the Iranians targeted American vulnerability, for the sanctions regime was always felt by this White House to be a burden. It was hard getting Russia and China on board, and even the Europeans, ever eager for Iranian contracts, found loopholes. Obama didn’t want sanctions; it was Congress that forced them on the White House. Even advocates of sanctions recognized they were of limited value—they weren’t a magic bullet but were part of a larger toolkit to stop Iran without having to resort to military force. And if the United States did eventually have to strike Iranian nuclear facilities, at least the sanctions regime would show the Europeans that all nonmilitary options had been exhausted.

In time, Obama came to see that he could use the existence of sanctions to persuade Congress and the Israelis that he was serious about stopping an Iranian bomb. In other words, sanctions were cynically invoked by the White House both to hide the truth that Obama wasn’t going to follow through on his own stated policy of using military force against Iran in the event all else failed, and to deter the Israelis from a military strike of their own.

Again, it’s instructive to see the sanctions issue from the Iranian perspective. As they see it, sanctions must be something like performance art, lots of movement and drama that only signaled the White House had no stomach for military action. Rather, sanctions represented the furthest limit to which the Americans were willing to go to stop Iran from going nuclear—not far enough. Sanctions relief would show that the American policy of prevention had entirely collapsed. And that’s why the Iranians went to Geneva, not because sanctions drove them to the table, but because they wanted the administration to agree publicly to what it had already conceded in its secret talks with Tehran. The reason sanctions relief is so important to the Iranians is that it makes Obama a partner in facilitating their nuclear weapons program.

The importance of sanctions relief lies not in the amount of money—whether it’s $7 billion or several times more than that—to which Tehran will now have access. The cash is not insignificant—a fraction of it would go a long way toward prosecuting the Iranians’ war in Syria—but the main issue is that even a small erosion of sanctions will give rise to a powerful global lobby that will do much of the heavy lifting on behalf of the deal. To put it in language that comports with Obama’s worldview, sanctions relief creates an entitlement program with lots of stakeholders, from Russian oligarchs and the Chinese Army to EU officials and American companies, determined to see it succeed.

With sanctions relief, the Iranian economy has gone from being a bad bet that might get you kicked out of the international financial system to a huge opportunity. All that these potential “stakeholders” care about is getting in early enough to win a piece of the pie. The Iranian press is already reporting indirect contacts between Tehran and American energy concerns, and a recent French report claims that General Motors and Boeing are interested in exploring deals. Who in their right mind would sabotage an agreement between the White House and the Islamic Republic that is potentially worth hundreds of billions of dollars and, just as important for the Western democracies, jobs?

It’s little wonder that British foreign secretary William Hague warned the Israelis not to undermine the agreement. He’s speaking for everyone in the world aside from Israel and America’s now-abandoned Arab allies, especially Saudi Arabia. Were the Israelis to strike Iranian nuclear facilities, not only would it shake global energy prices, it would also scatter all that potential gold, and political patronage, to the winds.

In Obama’s hands, first sanctions and now sanctions relief are simply tools to deter the Israelis from crashing the party and striking Iran. To focus too narrowly on the debate over sanctions, then, means letting the White House change the subject. The issue is not sanctions but preventing the Iranians from getting a bomb.

Lee Smith is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

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