Today the UN Security Council passed sanctions against the Iranian regime by a vote of 12-2 with Lebanon abstaining. This is a significant diplomatic victory for the Obama administration, as in the end it was able to get China and Russia to support sanctions. While it is a blow that Turkey and Brazil voted no — given that a unanimous vote would have sent a stronger global signal — in the end, it doesn’t detract from the practical matter that Iran will be struck with the harshest UN sanctions yet. Quietly, and without much awareness in the press, the Obama administration has successfully implemented a robust containment plan to deal with Iran.
Over the last few months, the right has asserted that UN sanctions against Iran were pointless because China and Russia would water them down. But the very reason why the sanctions effort was dragging on was because the US kept pushing for stronger measures, as UN Ambassador Susan Rice noted, “had we wanted a low ball, low impact resolution we could have had that in a very short period of time.”
In the end, the Obama administration appears to have gotten fairly significant measures that puts additional pressure on the Iranian regime. As the New York Times reports, “the main thrust of the sanctions is against military, trade and financial transactions carried out by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which controls the nuclear program and has taken a more central role in running the country and the economy.”
The measures will no doubt make it harder for Iran to develop its nuclear and ballistic missile program. Nuclear proliferation expert David Albright told the Washington Post that the sanctions will likely push back the timeframe on Iran’s nuclear development, explaining that the “stuff they got easily five or six years ago they are struggling to get now.” And Secretary Clinton is undoubtedly right when she says that these are “the most significant sanctions Iran has ever faced.”
Importantly, though on areas where China and Russia did weaken sanctions, such as in specifically targeting the Iranian central bank, the US, and much more importantly, the European Union can now move to take stronger action. The New York Times noted:
Beyond the restrictions imposed by the sanctions themselves, the vote sets stage for harsher measures that the United States and the European Union have promised to enact on their own once they had the imprimatur of the United Nations. European leaders are likely to discuss new measures at a summit in mid June.
As I noted previously, the US has all but sanctioned itself out of relevance vis-a-vis Iran, but the European Union (along with China) remains its largest trading partner and therefore has significant leverage. Therefore further EU sanctions are very significant.
While the effort at the UN has been the most visible aspect of the Administration’s Iran policy, it has taken other steps to contain and isolate Iran. Militarily, the administration has reoriented US missile defense plans in Europe so that they are more focused and effective in countering the Iranian missile threat. Through General Petraeus the Administration has sped up missile defenses in the Persian Gulf. They have also reassured Iran’s Arab neighbors of US commitment to their security in an effort to stave off potential cascade of nuclear proliferation throughout the region. Ideologically, through its broader outreach to the Muslim world and by developing a direct dialogue with the Iranian people the Administration has helped undercut Iran’s ideological appeal in the region.
Internationally, the administration has been able to increase Iran’s isolation and box it into a corner at the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference so that it was forced to sign on to a consensus document supporting the tenets of the treaty that prohibits them from having a nuclear weapon or risk being the lone country to veto. And by directly engaging Iran in talks and by not closing the door to diplomatic talks, the Obama administration has clearly shown the world that the intransigent party is Iran, not the United States. This has built up international support for punitive measures against Iran.
While sanctions and containment may in the end not block Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, the only way to ensure that outcome is to invade – not bomb, invade. And as of yet, even the most hawkish conservatives have been reticent to publicly call for such disastrous action. Instead of pursuing such a disastrous approach, by maintaining international cohesion among the world’s major powers and implementing a containment strategy, the US has now ensured that should Iran chose to go down the nuclear path, its future will look a lot more like North Korea’s — isolated and poor.