Isolating Iran Cannot Be Done Unilaterally

un-security-council-10-14-782603-(1)You can’t isolate a country by yourself. Yet those on the right simply don’t seem to get the simple point that it is impossible for the US to unilaterally isolate Iran or have a major impact on Iranian decision making through unilateral sanctions. In essence, we have already sanctioned ourselves out of relevance, as decades of US sanctions have eliminated Iran’s reliance on the US market. So to further isolate Iran, it is about getting other countries to do more.

This is why the Obama administration has patiently sought to build support for UN sanctions, which they now appear on the cusp of achieving. Russia and China appear to be on board in supporting UN sanctions and a vote may happen as early as next week. Achieving international unanimity among the UN Security Council was an arduous diplomatic slog, as both China and Russia have close economic dealings with Tehran and are not as strategically concerned about the Iranian nuclear program. Getting them on board now sends a strong signal that the world – not just the west – is strongly opposed to the actions of the Iranian regime.

Yet the right has been moving the goal posts on sanctions, now claiming they won’t work and advocating instead ambiguous calls for the US to simply “get tough” and to start imagining about regime change – some even call for another disastrous war. But these approaches are the very failed policies that the Bush administration pursued that in the end only enabled the Iranian regime to freely advance their nuclear program.

While the right say UN sanctions have been watered down, they overlook the fact that UN sanctions pave the way for stronger European sanctions against Iran. The EU is also the largest economic bloc in the world – the EU economy is larger than the US’ – and unlike the US, the European Union does not currently place significant trade restrictions on Iran beyond the existing UN sanctions. As a result the EU, along with China, are Iran’s largest trading partners. More than 20 percent of Iran’s trade is with the EU, by contrast just 0.5 percent is with the United States. By getting sanctions at the UN, the Administration has not only further isolated Iran by getting China and Russia to join with them, but it has paved the way for more far-reaching action by the EU, which will further squeeze the regime.

There is however a question of the broader utility of sanctions in facilitating changes in the behavior of regimes. Sanctions are definitely no magic cure and pursued in isolation of additional diplomatic efforts rarely have their hoped for effects. As a result, continued diplomacy and engagement remain essential. The Bush administration came to this realization on North Korea after three years of bluster and grudgingly resumed talks. Those broke down in the end, but by holding the talks the Bush administration helped lay the groundwork for further international action to isolate North Korea.

In other words, further engagement exposes the bad international actor, as being a bad international actor. Therefore, the Obama administration should not see their policy options toward Iran as representing a choice between engagement and the “pressure track.” They need to do both. Pressure through sanctions can serve as an important additional source of leverage in any further negotiations.

Furthermore, even if the sanctions effort fails to change Iranian behavior, sanctions in themselves do play a larger role in deterring bad international behavior by others. In short, Iran is violating international rules and laws, failing to inflict costs on such behavior removes the deterrent from other countries following down that very path. The fact is that no one wants to be like North Korea – nuclear armed and starving. Therefore for the sake of the non-proliferation regime, if Iran continues to move downs the path toward achieving a nuclear weapon, increasing the penalties and furthering its isolation will be essential.

But to get crippling sanctions on Iran, as Secretary Clinton suggested, requires further extensive multilateral coordination, as no unilateral American sanctions will ever be “crippling.”