June 11, 2010

Obama wants weaker sanctions on Iran?

Russian S-300 air defense system

After securing what his Secretary of State hailed as "significant" sanctions on Iran in the United Nations, President Barack Obama now is asking the U.S. Congress to water down pending legislation imposing additional, unilateral sanctions. Normally this would come as a surprise - after all, once the United Nations laid the framework with its sanctions, the United States and the European Union would follow through with additional restrictions, convincing Iran to reconsider it nuclear program. These would be the "crippling" and "biting" sanctions we were promised, right?

The whole sanctions story has taken far too long and has been characterized by the wheeling and dealing of a Persian bazaar, or Chicago. The American effort to convince Iran to stop enriching uranium began as soon as President Obama took office. According to his ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, the policy of engagement coupled with the threat of additional sanctions would force the Iranians to comply with international demands. That was in January 2009. The engagement process lasted through the first year of the Administration, but was rebuffed at every turn by the Iranians.

You would think that after a year of the Iranian's ignoring several of Obama's arbitrary deadlines that the Administration would get the message that the Iranians are not serious about being "engaged." The Iranians only pretend to talk when they believe it will prolong the standoff with the West - all the while, they continue to enrich uranium. The Administration actually played right into the hands of the Iranians by giving them additional time to further their program. This was a foreign policy success - for the Iranians. (See Iran again outmaneuvering the West.)

During Iran's deflection of Obama's engagement efforts, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to garner support for what were biiled as "crippling" sanctions in the United Nations. That basically boils down to convincing the Russians and Chinese to forgo their lucrative commercial dealings with Iran and support an additional round of sanctions. It took 18 months and has yielded another weak, voluntary and impossible to enforce set of restrictions on Iran. It took a lot of compromise, and more egregious, a series of undisclosed backroom deals with the Chinese and Russians. (See
Iran sanctions and the backroom deals....)

For example, in the United Nations sanctions that were passed, there is a huge loophole, confirmed by the U.S. Department of State, that allows the Russians to sell the S-300 air defense system (photo above) to Iran. This is a capable system that will complicate any Israeli attack plans, and are a surprising omission in a sanctions regime that prohibits selling arms to Iran. The Russians have stated that according to their interpretation of the sanctions they supported, they determine what items they are prohibited from selling to Iran. That does not sound "crippling" to me.

It gets better. President Obama has asked Congress to put a provision in the unilateral sanctions legislation that grants him "the authority to waive penalties against companies that sell gasoline or other refined oil products to Iran if those companies are based in countries that have cooperated in imposing U.N. sanctions on Iran." Translated into "transparency" language, that means Obama can exempt Chinese and Russian companies from American sanctions.

Call me cynical, but this is what it looks like to me: Obama and his cronies promised his Russian and Chinese counterparts that in return for their support for a weak United Nations sanctions resolution, he would make sure that American unilateral sanctions did not stop them from selling air defense weapons and refined gasoline to Iran. They did their part, now we are seeing the President attempting to do his.

So we cotniue to have no effective sanctions. Iran's centrifuges have not even slowed down - I doubt that they will.