March 1, 2012

Secretary Clinton, where are the "crippling" sanctions on Iran?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

For three years now, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been promising "crippling" sanctions on the regime in Iran if it did not open its nuclear facilities to international inspection and halt its uranium enrichment program. I wish she would at least call the Iranian program what it is - an effort to develop a nuclear weapon. Thus far, the sanctions that have been imposed on Iran have not had any real effect on the nuclear program - Tehran has been enriching uranium for years, despite cyber attacks on the centrifuges and assassinations of key nuclear scientists. 

I am not convinced that the sanctions that the Obama Administration is legally obligated to impose will have any effect either. Here's why:

The new sanctions, mandated by Congress in the National Defense Authorization Act, will target any private foreign financial institutions that "knowingly conduct or facilitate any significant financial transaction" with Iran's central bank for any purpose other than the purchase of petroleum or petroleum products.

That's not a typo - other than the purchase of petroleum or petroleum products. In other words, Iran is free to sell its oil and refined products without any penalty. The penalty is only imposed when a bank facilitates the purchase of other Iranian products. Like what - pistachios? Weapons? Iran doesn't sell weapons to its ally Syria or its terrorist group proxies - it just provides them.

Iran makes its money from the export of oil. Iran is the world's fifth largest oil exporter and the second-biggest OPEC producer after Saudi Arabia. If you seriously want to sanction the Iranian regime, you need to limit their ability to sell that oil. Closing off access to the international banking system is an excellent way to do that. We know it will be effective - it was when this level of sanction was proposed that Iran retaliated by threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz. That threat validated the potential effectiveness of the proposed sanction. So why aren't we doing what we know will be effective?

The Administration is trying to have to have it both ways. It wants to appear to be imposing the "crippling" sanctions it has been promising for over three years. In that three years, while the Administration has been taken in by repeated Iranian offers to re-open negotiations that never go anywhere, Iranian physicists and engineers have continued to refine uranium and develop other nuclear weapons components.

The Administration wants to appear tough while not imposing the effective sanctions that will limit Iran's ability to sell its oil. Why? They are concerned that the price of oil will rise to levels that might stymie the weak economic recovery around the world, especially in the United States, as the presidential campaign season gets underway. It's a dangerous balancing act - hope the Iranians do not develop nuclear weapons while you allow them to export as much oil as they wish when it is possible to stop them in their tracks with the sanctions you know will be effective. It's a question of priorities - work to keep Iran from having a nuclear weapon or work to ensure your reelection. Let me guess how that calculation will go....

Some good news, though, from the Secretary. Just this week, she clarified that the Obama Administration is committed to prevent Iran from not only developing a nuclear weapon but the capability to develop a nuclear weapon. It is not merely a semantic difference, it is a clear statement that we will not allow the Iranians to do what previous national intelligence estimates have used as an excuse to not declare Iran's program a nuclear weapons develop program - to develop all the tools and capabilities to build a weapon, but not actually assemble a device. That was semantics from an over-cautious politicized intelligence community.

Of course, Secretary Clinton has made other statements that seem to contradict her supposed tough stance on Iran.

"What we are intending to do is to ratchet up these sanctions as hard and fast as we can, follow what's going on inside Iran, which seems to be a lot of economic pressures that we think does have an impact on decision-making."

Poor syntax aside, if she really means what she says, why are we not imposing the "crippling" sanctions we know will work, the "crippling" sanctions she and the President have been promising for years?