February 21, 2009

Bloggingheads: Can sanctions really prevent an Iranian nuke?

[vodpod id=ExternalVideo.786578&w=425&h=350&fv=playlist%3Dhttp%253A%252F%252Fbloggingheads%252Etv%252Fdiavlogs%252Fliveplayer%252Dplaylist%252F17835%252F37%253A26%252F42%253A48] Bear with me while I completely geek out for a second. 
Bloggingheads has Jeffrey Lewis and Jacqueline Shire debating whether Iran sanctions are an effective tool of US policy.  Awesome.
Jeffrey is over at the New American Foundation and also runs the blog Arms Control Wonk (which I believe I mentioned earlier is required reading).  He’s also someone for whom I have enormous respect.
Jacqueline is part of a team at ISIS (the Institute for Science and International Security) that provides one of the most valuable resources for anyone following Iran’s nuclear program: the ISIS papers that always accompany the quarterly IAEA reports. (check out their last one here)
It’s important to note that these two experts agree on most of the really fundamental questions over Iran’s nuclear program.  Would a military attack be a good idea?  No.  Is Iran hell-bent on getting a nuclear weapon?  Probably not yet.  Is it possible to avoid an Iranian nuke?  Yes. 
But in my mind, Jeffrey’s argument is dead on.  If we really want to solve this problem with Iran, we need to forget about sanctions.  There are other options that are much more effective; sanctions won’t work on any reasonable timeline, if at all; obtaining the universal support that’s required for sanctions to work is unrealistic, etc. 
I am a big fan of Jacqueline’s work, but it’s important not to forget what the real goal in all of this is: to ensure that Iran does not use its nuclear program to develop a nuclear weapon.  Hurting the Iranian economy is not an end in itself — in fact American officials have declared that it is the policy of the United States to fully support the Iranian people.  So Jacqueline makes a mistake in focusing only on the sanctions rather than the true objective:

I completely agree with you that the sanctions currently imposed on Iran are not causing huge pain.  I do think that there are some banking and finance sanctions that are causing some problems….  That having been said, I also think there are sanctions that could be adopted that could cause serious pain.

This overlooks Jeffrey’s original point, which I happen to agree with, that causing the Iranian government to feel pain does not necessarily have an effect on Iran’s policies.  It’s possible sanctions really do hurt Iran’s hardliners, but what’s the point in doing that if it won’t make them change their behavior? 
And as for the question of what countries export gasoline to Iran, they’re predominantly Swiss and Indian.  Jacqueline was right to point out that Reliance Industries, a major Indian gasoline supplier to Iran, recently bowed to US pressure and announced it would halt its exports.  She was also right in saying that once a company steps out, someone else will probably just move in to fill the void. 
That is unless, like Reliance did last month, companies just go ahead and continue their shipments anyway. 

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