Not-Crippling-Enough Sanctions?

Speaking before the United Nations General Assembly this week about the nuclear standoff with Iran, President Obama said, "America wants to resolve this issue through diplomacy, and we believe that there is still time and space to do so." While noting "that time is not unlimited," Obama boasted that "a coalition of countries is holding the Iranian government accountable." He was referring to sanctions against Iran, a key in the dual-track approach of pressure and diplomacy aimed at averting a nuclear Iran while also averting war. But for Washington hawks, this is not enough. It never is.

Take, for example, the opinion pages of the Washington Post today, where neoconseravtive pundit Ilan Berman and Andrew Davenport clearly take the tack that not enough is being done—and place the blame squarely on the Obama administration. "In the rare instances when the White House has chosen to enforce [energy sector-focused Iran sanctions] and other measures, it has penalized only obscure violators and those with the most minimal impact on the global—and the Iranian—economy," they wrote. Obama should perhaps be forgiven for trying to spare the global economy, but how dare he avoid crippling the Iranian economy? That would defeat the purpose of the broad-based sanctions against Iran.

One might not be surprised to find a problem with this logic on Iran: if the Obama administration won't hurt the Iranian economy, then how come the Iranian economy is hurting so bad? That's right: though Obama, contend Berman and Davenport, has opted for "the most minimal impact" on Iran, the impact has been tremendous. Just ask the Israeli government, which, according to a Foreign Ministry report leaked to the media, believes recent sanctions "have caused far more damage to the Iranian economy than previously believed."

Alternatively, one can consult facts—and it's no wonder, when you do, why Berman and Davenport don't mention any numbers. "So far sanctions have reduced Iran's oil exports by as much as 40 percent," wrote RAND Corporation analyst Alireza Nader in Foreign Policy. "Iran's currency, the rial, has depreciated sharply, raising the price of everyday goods." Outlining just how this happened, Nader writes:

The administration has managed to build a wide and deep international coalition against Iran: The European Union has ceased imports of Iranian oil, while major Asian economies such as Japan, India, and South Korea, have substantially reduced their purchases. Iran is now largely shut out of the global financial system. Even Russia and China have moved away from their longtime partner: Russia has cancelled important weapons contracts, and China has backed out of major oil and gas projects with Iran. These developments had had a major impact on both Iran's economy, and potentially its nuclear decision-making.

Nader acknowledges that the effective pressure has nonetheless not caused Iran to change course (yet) on nuclear issues. But this is hardly same as Berman and Davenport's contention that sanctions are "flimsy," which features both in the headline and the piece. Though the pair focus on energy sector sanctions and which companies don't get hit with sanctions, they never mention the massive reduction in oil exports nor that, while some companies don't get htis, most of the world's governments are on board.

What Berman and Davenport seem to want is not the "smart sanctions" that Nader describes, but blanket sanctions—the kind that saw infant mortality in Iraq rise threefold in the 1990s. And don't forget, eventually war with Iraq was required, too. In fact, thinking back, Berman was very pleased with the outcome in Iraq. The war there was still young in April 2003, and Berman was riding high, when he urged the Bush administration to undertake "more regime change." Where? Berman saw "an opening in Iran." His prescriptions for the Islamic Republic are starting to sound a lot like a movie we've already seen.