Thursday, June 10, 2010

Hurray! Sanctions On Iran (well, sort of…)

So the big news on Wednesday was that the United States succeeded in getting the United Nations Security Council to agree on a new round of sanctions against Iran aimed at getting that country to suspend action on their nuclear development program. Predictably, the US is touting the new sanctions as an effective tool against Iran’s ambitions; in reality though they’re far less than advertised and certainly not the “crippling” sanctions that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton threatened to levy against Iran just last year.

Any truly effective sanctions regime against Iran would target their oil exports – the place where Iran earns the bulk of their foreign currency. But Wednesday’s sanctions specifically avoid putting restrictions on Iran’s oil exports, a compromised that the US had to make in order to get China (which relies on Iranian oil to help fuel their ongoing economic expansion) on board. Similarly, Wednesday’s resolution bars foreign governments from supplying Iran with weapons – but only “weapons” that meet a specific set of definitions included in an annex to the sanctions resolution. One item that apparently somehow does not meet the “weapon” definition is the S-300 anti-aircraft missile system Iran has been trying to buy from Russia for three years now. So far Russia hasn’t delivered the S-300s for possible reasons that include technical problems with the system, to pressure from Israel not to complete the deal (Israel fears the S-300 would be so effective it would make any attack against Iran’s nuclear production sites too costly to the Israeli Air Force; at the same time Russia has begun to buy unmanned drone aircraft from Israel to cover up a hole in Russia’s military intelligence gathering capacity, an arrangement that may be jeopardized by the final sale of the S-300 to Iran). There is nothing in the new sanctions though that would actually prevent Russia from delivering the S-300.

The annexes to the sanctions bill are in fact filled with loopholes, many of which are outlined in this informative (but thanks to an odd choice of background/font colors, very hard-to-read) post. For example, a lot of the reporting on the sanctions say that several dozen individuals and more than a dozen banks and companies are specifically targeted (the reason why US officials are touting the sanctions as “smart”); in reality though there is only one individual and one bank that were not covered by earlier UN sanctions.

In an attempt then to “do something” on the Iranian issue, the US watered down the sanctions put before the Security Council enough so that the Chinese and Russians wouldn’t veto them, but in the process they passed a sanction regime that – despite assurances from the White House – won’t have enough “bite” to actually compel Iran to abandon its nuclear program (the whole point of the sanctions in the process). To make matters worse, the US seems to be opening a rift with Brazil and Turkey – two countries that in recent months have been coming into their own as fledgling powers on the world stage. Brazil and Turkey recently worked together on a scheme that would have had Iran ship uranium to Brazil in return for fuel for their nuclear research reactors. The United States was quick to try to scupper the Brazil/Turkey deal, based in part on new assessments that the Iranians had more nuclear material than they were originally believed to possess (in other words the Iranians were happy to give some nuclear material to Turkey as part of the deal since they had more hidden away). Brazil and Turkey though felt the US opposition was really motivated by a desire not to have more voices setting the tone of global affairs; notably both countries voted against the Iran sanctions resolution (Lebanon, serving a term in one of the SC’s rotating seats, abstained in the final vote). It’s a move likely to set the tone for future international negotiations, adding Brazil and Turkey to the growing list of countries the United States will have to try to “win over” when it comes to building international consensus on a given issue.
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