Sanctions, shmanctions

News item:

Visiting U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen declared Sunday that Washington was committed to Israel’s security, voicing concern over the “unintended consequences” a war in the Middle East over Iran’s contentious nuclear program would bring.

“I worry a great deal about the unintended consequences of a strike,” he told reporters during a visit to Tel Aviv, referring to Iran’s threats to retaliate against Israel and U.S. sites in the Gulf. “I think the Iranians are very difficult to predict.”

Translation: he’s worried about Israel’s security so much that he really doesn’t want Israel to attack Iran. This makes little sense. Nobody is more aware than Israel of Iran’s ability to retaliate in many unpleasant ways, and so it’s very likely that it would not take that step unless there was absolutely no alternative. It would only attack if the consequences of not attacking were judged to be worse.

The US has said over and over that it wishes to deter Iran from proceeding with its program by applying sanctions. So far, sanctions aimed specifically at the nuclear program have been spotty and easily bypassed. The international sanctions now being contemplated would be applied to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and businesses and institutions associated with it.

Now consider that the nuclear program is top priority for the Iranian leadership. Ahmadinejad has diverted an enormous amount of resources which could have been used to improve the local economy into a crash program to develop nuclear weapons, and has brutally repressed popular anger at resulting problems. Iran has managed to get its hands on critical technology despite embargoes on it.

Is it likely that Tehran will reverse course at this point as a result of more economic sanctions? Is it not more likely that they will be countered by a further diversion of resources, and simply exacerbate the problems of the general population? The ability of a dictatorial regime to shift resources at will and suppress popular opposition makes sanctions a poor way of influencing its behavior.

The US House and Senate have passed bills calling for US sanctions on international companies which export refined fuel to Iran. This would bite very hard, since at present Iran lacks sufficient refining capacity of its own — although a Chinese consortium is planning to build a refinery in Iran to help solve this problem.

But even if refined fuel sanctions could be implemented (the bills would need to be reconciled and signed by the President, and there is serious opposition from various quarters), there’s no reason to think that they would have much effect on the nuclear program. The result would probably be even more trouble for the Iranian populace, who can nevertheless be kept in line by the same vicious oppression that allowed the regime to steal the last election.

So here are the facts:

  • Nuclear weapons development is of the highest priority for the Iranian regime;
  • The ability of the dictatorial regime to shift resources means that sanctions are unlikely to be effective, even ‘painful’ ones;
  • Therefore, unless something totally unexpected happens, only military action can be effective in preventing or delaying the Iranian bomb.

I’m pretty sure all parties involved understand this — even the Obama administration. Therefore the debate (at least in the US — in Israel they know the answer) should be expected to shift to variations of “how bad would a nuclear Iran really be?” See my take on one example of this genre here.

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3 Responses to “Sanctions, shmanctions”

  1. Robman says:

    The U.S. under Obama is behaving just like the Brits under Chamberlain leading up to WW2. Except Hitler couldn’t get nukes. Israel is Czechoslovakia or Poland…but with a lot more capability to fight back.

    You suppose if Czechoslovakia could have mounted a serious defense, that Britain would have been so ready to sacrifice them on the altar of appeasing the Nazis?

    Really, the U.S. under Obama is much WORSE than Britain under Chamberlain. At least the Brits had the excuse of just having lost a whole generation in their bloodiest war ever only twenty years before, or about the time that has elapsed from Gulf War One to the present. And the Nazis really were much better prepared militarily than the Brits in many respects, though a lot of this was puffery. The enemies we face today – and Israel faces – are objectively very weak in relation to us or Israel in most parameters. We could crush them easily. But Obama & Co. cowers at even the comparatively low risks of confronting even them, who do not even begin to rise to the level of relative power that Nazi Germany did in comparison with Great Britain circa 1938.

    What an incredibly low and dishonest time we live in. We could not have a more wrong president. Getting through the next three years is going to be like trying to run through waist-deep mud.

  2. Shalom Freedman says:

    The American Administration has an evolving position, and the recent harsh words about the Iranian leadership by Secy. Clinton are an indication of that. They do not rule out a military option. The question is whether they will evolve so slowly as to in effect enable Iran to have its nuclear option. The question is also whether they will fool themselves and impose sanctions which will not really stop Iran. So while agreeing that essentially the U.S. is failing in its task, I am not so certain that in the end they will not act against Iran. One problem however of being too late is that the price of the action will be considerably increased. As it is now I already worry that Israel will be the one who will be most damaged by a U.S. military effort to knock out the Iranian nuclear sites.

  3. Robman says:


    In my humble estimation, the Obama administration is indeed evolving towards the patently inescapable conclusion that military force is the only way to stop Iran, but at a glacial pace that means that they really don’t have the nerve to act. I too don’t completely rule out action by Obama against Iran – if it happens, if Israel does not act first, I see this sometime in 2011 – but they are giving the Iranians a great deal of time to prepare. The longer we wait, the harder it will be. I worry greatly of a Carter hostage rescue fiasco on steroids. Most of all, I worry about an Israeli strike out of desperation that does not hit hard enough to prevent an incredible mess. Maybe I underestimate Israeli prowess in this scenario…I hope that is the case, for that is about the only hope we have left, I believe.

    McCain would have taken care of this by now.

    Again, we could not have elected a more wrong president for the times we live in.