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Opinion

Opinion

Iran sanctions will buy U.S. some time

February 24, 2010

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It was a blunt exchange with the bitter bite of the ideological battles between talk-show hosts Keith Olbermann and Bill O’Reilly — except the sparring partners were Hillary Rodham Clinton and Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.

“We see that the government of Iran, the supreme leader, the president, the Parliament, are being supplanted, and that Iran is moving toward a military dictatorship,” snapped the U.S. secretary of state while visiting Qatar last week. In Tehran, Ayatollah Khamenei snarled back: “Now the Americans, once again, have dispatched their agent as a saleswoman to the Persian Gulf to spread lies.”

That’s a far cry from the policy of engaging Iran that President Obama pursued so hopefully when he took office (although administration officials insist their door is still open). At a moment when the U.N. nuclear agency is suggesting, for the first time, that Iran is seeking nuclear-weapons capability, does Obama have a coherent strategy toward Tehran?

Engagement worth a shot

I think it made sense to try engagement, even though the odds were daunting. Obama sent warm messages to the Iranian public and two letters to Khamenei offering to reset relations. The ayatollah didn’t answer. Perhaps anti-Americanism is too essential to the regime’s worldview.

We’ll never know what might have been had Iran’s rulers not rigged the June elections and provoked the country’s most serious political unrest since the revolution. The leadership is now so deeply divided that it’s unlikely to revamp its nuclear policy or relations with the “Great Satan.” The Revolutionary Guards — an aggressive military force that controls much of Iran’s economy, along with its nuclear and foreign policies — seem to be calling the shots.

In such circumstances, the White House had no choice but to activate Plan B: pursuit of harsher international sanctions to curb Iran’s nuclear program. But, having offered engagement, Obama has a better chance of getting U.N. Security Council members on board.

“They can’t say this administration didn’t open the door,” said Nicholas Burns, who worked on the Iran issue as undersecretary of state in the last Bush administration. “Now Obama is in a much stronger position to say, ‘Those guys wouldn’t meet us at the table.’ He has a lot more authority.”

Yet, even if Russia agrees to new sanctions (a possibility) and China acquiesces (more iffy), many experts ask whether sanctions will change the regime’s behavior.

True, Iran’s economy is in difficult straits. But, says Mark Fowler, a former CIA officer who leads Booz Allen Hamilton’s Persia House research service, Iranian officials “are pretty well set up to weather sanctions, pretty good at working around them, and at smuggling. It’s a question of how much pain you can bear, and they can bear a lot.”

Sanctions would indeed worsen Iran’s economic problems, says Suzanne Maloney, an expert on Iran at the Brookings Institution, but “the difficulty is to connect the impact with a reversal of positions by Iranian authorities.” To the extent that sanctions target the Revolutionary Guards, Maloney said, their impact will be “much more powerful. But they won’t be a knockout punch.”

And just about everyone I’ve talked to doubts that congressional sanctions against refined oil products would make a difference. The idea sounds good, since Iran has insufficient refineries to produce much of its gasoline. But such sanctions are likely to hit the public hardest, while the Revolutionary Guards profit from smuggling rackets that evade the ban. Moreover, the regime, which is trying to reduce government subsidies for gasoline, could then blame sanctions, rather than its own mismanagement, for the public’s pain.

Sanctions the best option

Yet, with all these caveats, sanctions are the best option at present. A military attack would rally Iranians around the regime without ending the nuclear program. (Unlike Iraq’s Osirak reactor, which Israel bombed in 1981, Iran’s program is dispersed, with much of it deep underground.) An attack would also risk the unforeseen consequences of another Mideast war, including skyrocketing oil prices.

Sanctions buy time to isolate the regime internationally for its human rights abuses and for its violation of U.N. resolutions on its nuclear program. They buy time to strengthen the defenses of Iran’s Gulf neighbors. They buy time to wait out possible political changes inside Iran and to see if Iran’s leadership will reconsider compromise. Finally, they buy time to prepare a containment strategy, should all else fail.

And we have time: Despite its bluster, Iran is having serious technical problems with its nuclear program. And experts doubt that its leaders have decided whether to produce weapons or just go to the brink of doing so. (Khamenei insisted again earlier this month that Islam forbids such weapons.)

The Revolutionary Guards, who pursue earthly power rather than apocalyptic dreams, are unlikely to risk Tehran’s destruction by testing a nuclear weapon or launching one at Israel or the West. Their worldly interests may ultimately lead to an internal split between diehards and pragmatists who seek to join the global community.

If sanctions don’t produce quick results, Obama will have to withstand political pressure from those who want military action. “This is a long-term chess match, and we’ve only seen the opening moves,” Burns said. This game will take a steady hand.

— Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. trubin@phillynews.com

Comments

barrypenders 4 years, 1 month ago

“The United States needs Iran for many reasons, hence the ongoing backchannel negotiations and constant threats.” The United States needs to get out of Iraq, but knows that it can get bogged down again if Iran uses its covert levers to further undermine political and security stability. The United States also needs Iranian cooperation to placate Israel, which is pushing hard for crippling sanctions or military strikes against Iran over its nuclear program. Even in Afghanistan, the United States is looking to withdraw after its surge of forces, and to do so successfully not only requires Pakistani assistance, but a degree of cooperation between Afghanistan’s other neighbor, Iran. In other words, the United States needs Iran for many reasons, hence the ongoing backchannel negotiations and constant back and forth threats. Meanwhile, Iran possibly received a major boon on Tuesday in the unconfirmed capture of Abdolmalek Rigi, the leader of the anti-regime Jundallah rebel group that operates in Iran’s southeastern Sistan-Baluchistan province. Rigi was responsible for damaging attacks on generals of Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and Iran’s intelligence chief hailed the capture as a blow against the United States and the United Kingdom, who are suspected by the Iranians of supporting Jundallah. There are multiple versions of his capture involving Iranian security forces and possibly assistance from Afghanistan or Pakistan. Media reports indicate that the Pakistanis turned over a number of Jundallah militants to Iran’s security forces — and Pakistani cooperation makes sense as Islamabad attempts to deal with Tehran over Afghanistan. However, this version of Rigi’s capture may not be the whole truth. Iran claims Rigi was at a U.S. military base within 24 hours before his capture. And STRATFOR sources in Iran suggest that the United States allowed Pakistan to turn Rigi over to the Iranians, with the United States seeking in return greater assistance from Iran in stabilizing Iraq. This version of the story cannot be verified. Indeed, it is not entirely clear why Iran would relax its pressure in Iraq to help the United States at a time when the United States has gone so far down the path of punishing Iran over its nuclear program, especially knowing that a United States freed from Iraq is in a better position to strike Iran. Nevertheless the possibility of U.S. assistance — in an attempt to make Iran more willing to cooperate in other areas — cannot be ruled out.

Stimulus, Poser's Bastardization, and Posercare live unprecedented

Darwin bless us all

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barrypenders 4 years, 1 month ago

The 'Blessed One's' Jihad is on track.

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 24, 2010

The Iraq Withdrawal and the Rigi Capture

THE WORLD WAS ABUZZ ON TUESDAY with reports of the deteriorating political conditions in Iraq, and the impact they could have on the timetable for the U.S. military’s withdrawal. Iraq’s parliamentary elections are approaching on March 7, and a high degree of factional infighting is to be expected given Iraq’s status quo and the precarious settlement between the country’s opposed Shiite and Sunni sects and their political parties. But the U.S. withdrawal and heightened U.S.-Iranian tensions have exacerbated Iraq’s problems. Underscoring Iraq’s rising troubles were comments made Monday by top U.S. officer in Iraq, Gen. Raymond Odierno, who said that there were “contingency plans” for the U.S. withdrawal in the event that Iran, or any other state, caused a “significant change” on the ground in Iraq. Odierno’s comments were noteworthy not because he suggested that the U.S. military has backup plans for the withdrawal — this can be taken for granted — but rather because of the context in which they were made. Exiting Iraq in a timely fashion is at the core of the U.S. strategic interest at the moment. As long as U.S. forces are tied down there, the United States has limited ability to pursue other goals in its foreign policy, whether they be in Afghanistan, Iraq or in dealing with Russia’s reassertion of its sphere of influence or even China’s growing regional influence. Pulling out of Iraq is also a domestic political imperative for U.S. President Barack Obama. While it is of course true that the United States has alternatives for how it goes about its strategic withdrawal depending on conditions on the ground, it is significant that the U.S. general responsible for managing it all would state so publicly that the existing timetable might be adjusted. Odierno’s comments serve both to moderate expectations of the American drawdown, and to send the message to Iran that the United States still retains options in Iraq. Iran and Iraq are neighbors and rivals, and their history — especially their devastating war in the 1980s — ensured that Iran did not pass up the opportunity provided by the U.S. invasion to expand its influence in the Iraqi political sphere. This influence is also Iran’s greatest threat against the United States at a time when Washington is bearing down on Iran over its opaque nuclear program and threatening to impose sanctions, with a military option never out of mind. Iran has used its Shiite political proxies in Iraq to ramp up political and sectarian tensions there, and it has also had troops conduct limited border incursions into Iraq, as a warning to the United States that forceful moves against Iran will invite Iran to destroy American plans in Iraq.

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barrypenders 4 years, 1 month ago

Columbia needs to invite Ahmadinejad back to have another love in with him. Van and The Poser could talk shop with him.

Stimulus, Jihad, and Posercare live unprecedented

Darwin bless us all

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Brent Garner 4 years, 1 month ago

Bozo please explain your cryptic response. What do you mean by S. Africa? If you are referring to apartheid, it took decades. We do not have decades when it comes to Iran. Sorry, but you are incorrect, but you are welcome to try again.

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barrypenders 4 years, 1 month ago

Sanctions are working.

"An estimated 5.2 million people were living with HIV and AIDS in South Africa in 2008, more than in any other country.1 It is believed that in 2008, over 250,000 South Africans died of AIDS.2

National prevalence is around 11%, with some age groups being particularly affected. Almost one-in-three women aged 25-29, and over a quarter of men aged 30-34, are living with HIV.3

HIV prevalence among those aged two and older also varies by province with the Western Cape (3.8%) and Northern Cape (5.9%) being least affected, and Mpumulanga (15.4%) and KwaZulu-Natal (15.8%) at the upper end of the scale.

HIV in South Africa is transmitted predominantly heterosexually between couples, with mother-to-child transmission being the other main infection route."

Stimulus, PAD Sanctions, and Posercare live unprecedented

Darwin bless you

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just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 4 years, 1 month ago

"Please provide one historical example of sanctions working?"

S. Africa.

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Tom Shewmon 4 years, 1 month ago

Here, please allow your humble LJW fellow blogger to re-write the headline, "Iran sanctions will buy U.S. some time" to, "Iran sanctions will buy Iran some time".

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barrypenders 4 years, 1 month ago

Trudy, Trudy, Trudy. The Noble Peace Conqueror and his Jihad on America is doing exactly what Bush would do and did with the Aryan named state of Iran. You are such a caution. In the PAD world view, their perception knows how cowboy Bush be done.

Stimulus, Blessed Jihad, and Posercare live unprecedented

Darwin bless us all

0

Brent Garner 4 years, 1 month ago

Please provide one historical example of sanctions working? Particularly within the time frame estimated for Iran to develop an atomic bomb, which time frame is sometime between 2013 and 2015 by the most worrisome estimate.

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