Tighter Sanctions On Iran: An Alternative to War — or a Road to War?

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Kaveh Kazemi / Getty Images

A security guard patrols Marun petrochemical plant on September 28, 2011 in Mahshahr, southern Iran.

Pity President Barack Obama trying to stay off the slippery slope to war with Iran in an election year, while his challengers perform crowd-pleasing, spoken-word versions of Senator John McCain’s “Bomb Iran” adaptation of the Beach Boys. As they demonstrated last Wednesday in a forum hosted by the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), GOP presidential hopefuls are free to rattle imaginary sabers at Iran (“If I were president…”) without risk or consequence, while branding Obama as feckless in the face of the grave and gathering danger of Tehran’s nuclear program.  (The somewhat less alarmist consensus of U.S. intelligence remains that Iran has not made, let alone implemented, a decision to build nuclear weapons, despite steadily accumulating the means to do so.)

Republican frontrunners Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney committed themselves, at the RJC forum,  to policies that would effectively put the U.S. at war with Iran. Both stressed that regime-change in Tehran would be the goal of their Iran policy (now there’s an incentive for Tehran’s regime to seek a nuclear insurance policy), and both signaled a willingness to use military force to stop Iran’s nuclear program. When CNN interviewer Wolf Blitzer asked Gingrich later how he would respond to the proverbial 3 a.m. White House phone-call telling him that Israel had bombed Iranian nuclear facilities, Gingrich answered that it would never come to that, because he’d plan a joint military operation with Israel rather than put it in a position where it felt compelled to act alone. Besides, the former House Speaker said, Israel would never spring that surprise on him; they know he’s an ally and willing to help.

Pummeled by Republican accusations of insufficient affection for Israel (“I’m close to Netanyahu,” Gingrich told Blitzer; everyone knows Obama can hardly say the same…), the President last Thursday defended his Iran efforts, saying Tehran was under the toughest sanctions it has ever faced, and that he, too, is keeping all options (usually read as code for military action) “on the table.”

Neither Israel nor Iran seems to take seriously the possibility of U.S. military action — an “option” that has been “on the table” for the past five years, during which Iran has forged ahead — and their skepticism would  be underscored by repeated public warnings from the Pentagon of the strategic folly of exercising the “military option.” When talking about Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s a default position for GOP candidates to  insist they’d take their cue from America’s generals, but on Iran they don’t seem to be paying much heed to the consensus among the top brass — as channeled by Defense Secretaries Leon Panetta, and before him, Robert Gates — that bombing Iran would at best delay Iran’s progress by a couple of years, but at a cost of triggering a war with potentially devastating consequences throughout the Middle East, and for the world economy.

But slowing down the momentum towards confrontation with Iran isn’t going to win candidates much political support — or campaign donations — in this election season. Even as Republican presidential contenders tried to outbid one another in public displays of affection for Israel and hostility towards Iran (the latter apparently being the litmus test for the former these days), the Associated Press reports that the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) turned up the heat on Obama on Capitol Hill. AIPAC is the flagship Israel lobbying organization, and paying loquacious political tribute to its platforms has long been an essential rite of passage for politicians seeking national office, particularly because of the group’s ability to influence many donors who favor Democrats on domestic issues but hold hawkish views on Israel. Last week, according to the Associated Press, the organization sent a letter to U.S. lawmakers urging them to pass a package of crippling sanctions on Iran’s economy, despite objections from the Obama Administration on some of the legislation’s provisions. The relevant bill passed by 100-0 margin in the Senate last week, reservations expressed by the Administration notwithstanding, and must now be reconciled in committee with House legislation.

The Administration has sought to soften the impact of (or “gut,” in the words of the Wall Street Journal editorial on the matter) the new measures, reportedly urging an extension of the grace period before such measures takes effect, and seeking to remove the provision for U.S. sanctions against any foreign bank engaged in oil transactions with Iran’s central bank. The bill allows President Obama to waive implementation where U.S. national security is affected, although on the time-lines in the current version, he would have to issue three such waivers before election day to prevent a de facto oil embargo on Iran going into effect.

The Administration has warned that using the banking system to block Iran from selling oil could trigger a sharp increase in global oil prices, threatening the U.S. and world economy’s fragile recovery — even without such measures, tensions with Iran are already steadily pushing the price up. And Iran has previously warned that it would treat any attempt to bar its ability to sell oil as an act of war. But the legislators are hanging tough. “The goal … is to inflict crippling, unendurable economic pain over there,” explained New York Democrat Representative Gary Ackerman. “Iran’s banking sector — especially its central bank — needs to become the financial equivalent of Chernobyl: radioactive, dangerous and most of all, empty.”

But it’s not only Iran that could be antagonized by the new legislation. The U.S. and its partners do very little business with the Islamic Republic today; the purpose of the new measures is to punish those who do. The Western powers have failed to persuade many of Iran’s key trading partners — China, Russia, Turkey and India, among others — to voluntarily support new sanctions, which they believe are neither justified nor likely to produce a positive outcome. The new measures envisioned by Congress use the centrality of the U.S. banking system in the world economy to strong-arm reluctant partners into complying with Western sanctions. Administration officials warned that such measures could break the consensus on existing U.N. sanctions, and serve Iran’s purpose by driving a wedge between the key players in the international community. But Iran hawks can just as easily point out that existing sanctions, which represent the outer limit of the consensus, are clearly ineffective in changing Iran’s behavior. Still, China has invested heavily in Iran’s energy sector over the past three years, and may at some point balk at being told with whom it can do business by a country that owes it more than $1 trillion.

There may also be a deeper, unspoken concern, behind the Administration’s hesitation over putting Iran’s economy in a chokehold at this point: it could prove to be a not easily reversible step on the path to confrontation. If such sanctions are adopted as the only alternative to war, as the current debate frames them, their (likely) failure to bring Iran to heel renders armed conflict inevitable — at least as long as the logic that “the only thing worse than bombing Iran is Iran getting the bomb” prevails in the Washington conversation.

Escalation could even happen relatively quickly. Most states would treat an effective economic blockade that imposed “crippling, unendurable pain” as an act of war, and if Iran responds militarily, directly or via proxy forces or terror attacks, the two sides could find themselves quickly locked into potentially disastrous war. Yet, the domestic political dynamic in both Washington and Tehran raises the cost for leaders in both capitals of restraining the momentum towards confrontation.

It’s election season in Iran, too, with a parliamentary poll in March and a presidential vote in 2013 — and talking tough in the face of U.S. and Israeli threats is as popular inside Iran’s political system as promising regime change in Iran at the Republican Jewish Committee. In the broader Iranian public, there’s a growing sense of fatalism about the inevitability of war, and plenty of support for belligerent nationalist positions.

But the Administration is in a bind: It insists, correctly, that it has mustered an unprecedented level of sanctions against Iran, yet it is unable to demonstrate that those efforts are likely to change the game. Hawkish critics insist a clock is ticking, and most Iran analysts believe the current sanctions efforts are unlikely to produce a diplomatic breakthrough. Hence the apparent schizophrenia described in the Washington Post: last week: “Current and former U.S. officials say the administration is ramping up its covert efforts inside Iran, even as the White House is seeking a thaw in bilateral relations.”

The very idea of a “bilateral thaw” with Tehran coming amid a covert war is absurd — Iran’s leaders told Obama at the beginning of his presidency that there could be no rapprochement while sanctions remained in place; they’re hardly likely to soften up with drones flying overhead and key assets blowing up.

Clearly, the leaders on both sides could have their hands full in the year ahead simply avoiding a rapid march to a war they’d prefer to avoid, because the demands of domestic politics are pushing them towards confrontation.