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June 12, 2012

Unilateral Sanctions on Iran -- Less Unilateral Than You Might Think
Posted by David Shorr

Milli_Bank_Iran_251108As this Mark Landler NYTimes piece reminds us, the backdrop for upcoming talks on Iran's nuclear program in Moscow are new sanctions measures that will further clamp down on Iran's energy exports. First there is the European Union's embargo against any import of Iranian oil starting on July 1. For the rest of the world, US law will soon require many foreign banks to stop doing business with Iran or be banned from operating in the United States. (Here's an explainer I wrote recently for G8 Research Group/Newsdesk.)

For all intents and purposes, American banks are the guts of the global financial system. This gives the United States a privileged position in global commerce and a source of leverage in international politics and diplomacy. Through secondary sanctions, the US can force other nations to make an us-or-them choice regarding commercial ties with Iran.

With such an advantage, Americans might be tempted to see ourselves as holding the hammer, free to wield unilateral sanctions at will. And that is the temptation (aka hubris) that ensnares those among our conservative friends who've never met a sanction they didn't love. If the common blind spot of right-wing foreign policy is its denial of the military dictum that "the enemy gets a vote" -- that we can't count on the targets of our actions responding in just the way we'd like -- the problem is even worse for secondary sanctions. Don't forget, secondary sanctions put pressure on the target country through others; they threaten to punish not just Iran, but also Japan and South Korea. 

Note that the Landler piece focuses on exemptions from the Iran banking / fuel sanctions. The sanctions law exempts banks from any country that significantly reduces their dependence on Iranian oil imports. Key US allies like Japan and Korea get much of their energy from Iran and would find it very difficult to follow Europe's example of a total embargo. Now compare to one of the steadiest refrains of Republicans this campaign season: the need to be more supportive of America's friends and harsh with our adversaries. Okay, what does this platitude mean for the new sanctions, where a rigid get-tough approach would hurt our allies? 

The short answer is that you provide exemptions and work with countries that import Iranian oil, just as the Obama administration has done. And given the need to bring other nations along with us in ratcheting up pressure on Iran, unilateral sanctions don't look quite so unilateral. 

The point is a crucial one because of the added light it sheds on the political debate over President Obama's Iran policy. If each round of toughened sanctions depends on diplomacy and coalition building -- rather than just snapping our fingers -- then conservative demands to impose the toughest imaginable sanctions ASAP are unrealistic to say the least. The importance of gaining international cooperation and support also explains President Obama's success in imposing more stringent sanctions than President Bush ever did. 


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